Song of Australia by Stephen Crabbe
Growing up as many of us did, learning in history classes of German aggression against others, Stephen Crabbe’s Song of Australia is a departure, moving away from this into the stories of Germans—specifically German-Australians—who suffered discrimination and abuse based on their ethnicity. Set in the state of South Australia during the Great War—a world war at that time not being numbered or perceived to need such label so as to differentiate from some other world war—the book is divided into three novellas, the interconnectedness of which is slowly revealed as the characters move through events that link back to each other.
Opening with “Magpies and Mendelssohn,” we see Neddy approaching a music hall from which come voices singing God Save the King, accompanied by piano. Though initially shooed away, he makes his way inside to warn Elsie Fischer, whose family later Anglicise their names, the better to fit in, of danger to her father. Misunderstood by many, Neddy is referred to as the “dull-witted child.” Indeed, he cannot communicate in typical fashion and uses his singing voice to reach Elsie.
[H]is voice utter[ed] a wordless succession of shrill cries. She gaped at him. His voice was so clear, so sure. It uttered just two notes and she could see them as if written. First a crotchet, then an accentuated minim; together making an interval of a rising augmented fifth. A call of alarm!
Crabbe’s flow of words here is somewhat deceptive because although the style seems fitted to approximate what many regard as the more “innocent” speech and perception patterns of the early 20th century, it is brimming with symbolism. Perhaps autistic (the book never reveals exactly what disorder the child possibly experiences), Neddy does not express himself in a way most of the community can comprehend. Rather, he utilizes music to speak, deftly mimicking the magpies whose tree he shares and to whom he relates so closely. It is interesting to note that several websites give magpies symbolic meaning for such traits as being perceptive and expressive as well as deceptive and illusory—characteristics owned by those around Neddy depending upon their understanding of his search for a voice, a medium with which to communicate to others.
In search of voice also is the German community, many of whom are individuals born and raised in Australia but often treated like enemies. Elsie’s father, target of the xenophobic and threatening conversation Neddy had overheard, stifles his own voice while trying to show Elsie to seek her own, even during flight to the relative safety of the city, where they might better blend in.
The book’s other two novellas, “Song of Australia” and “The Parade,” develop in more detail the threat to Germans of Australia as we see Elsie and Edwin, a young man struggling with the contradictions between faith and war, develop a friendship that rewards as well as endangers. Attending language lessons together they become involved with Will Krause’s endeavors to find a place in Australia, itself seeking identification, all intertwined in Carl Linger’s “Song of Australia.”
Edwin, who hides his anti-war stance and Elsie her true background, work to develop a manner in which they might speak to the world, as would Australia, as “free and strong, but peaceful,” in defiance of their true circumstances, which force them into the silence of an illusory existence in which others perceive them not for who and what they are, but rather what their own deceptions perceive them to be.
As the individuals’ stories proceed and make connections, readers are given a greater understanding of the war mentality and how it drives otherwise peaceful citizens to harass some of their neighbors to such an extent that lives, careers and futures are destroyed. Using the language of music to convey some of his most lyrical passages, Crabbe guides readers through a story that matures, much like its characters, who themselves act almost as part of an opera, engaging us in the history of a young nation seeking its identity.
Stephen Crabbe can be reached at his Facebook author page as well as his blog, where he discusses writing, books, music, language and life.
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