A remote cattle station in the Western Australian (W.A.) outback in the early 1950’s is the setting, for the most part, of Nevil Shute’s book, Beyond the Black Stump. The story begins in Oregon in America where Stanton Laird, a geologist in his late twenties, has just returned home after a stint in Arabia working for a large oil company.
Stanton and his best friend, Chuck, had both been in serious trouble when they were 16 years of age, but life went on. That was all behind them in the past and mostly forgotten.
Stanton begins work in the Australian outback after a short holiday at home but before he leaves, his father tells him he’d like him to take on the family business when he’s finished his work in W.A.
Arriving in the Pilbara, he meets the unorthodox Regan family and very quickly forms an attachment to their attractive twenty-year-old daughter Mollie.
Mollie’s father, Pat, is Irish. He fought with the I.R.A. and had a price on his head when he left Ireland. Her mother is Scottish and with the rest of the extended family they run a very profitable sheep station at Laragh.
Relationships are complicated – Pat Regan married his brother Tom’s ex-wife, and he lives with them. Pat had numerous children by an Aboriginal woman who is also living with the family as a housekeeper, making meals and doing the laundry; her sons help their father with the work but don’t live in the Regan home. Added to the mix is the Judge, the station bookkeeper and tutor to all the children at Laragh. He is a well-educated man and an excellent teacher with a shady past.
Mollie’s opinion of America and Americans was formed entirely by movies and magazines but her contact with Stanton and the other Americans he worked with caused her to revise this picture of American life.
Stanton proposes to Mollie and she accepts, but her mother talks to the Judge who has travelled the world. He expresses concern that Mollie would grow tired of all the new things she sees in America, and as she began to discover the people, she would find they were just the same as the people in Australia. The problem would be that if she wasn’t happy with her new life, she’d be nine thousand miles away.
It was arranged that Mollie would spend a few months in America with Stanton’s family and that their engagement would only take place after that. She hadn’t known Stanton very long and this way she was free to return home, with no promises broken, if things didn’t work out.
This is a thoughtful story, just like I’ve come to expect from this author. He’s written a number of stories that explore cultural differences but this one is unique as it explores relationships between Aboriginals and Whites in outback Australia and contrasts them with those in America.
Stanton feels he should tell Mollie of his past, but her reaction is not what he expected. In fact, what appalled her was something that he hadn’t even considered. She was very open about her unconventional background – she was illegitimate, and her family situation was a bit bizarre, but he loved her and accepted her regardless. However, he stopped short of divulging all this to his parents, especially that she had half Aboriginal siblings. Molly was determined to be transparent about her situation and before long the small town was buzzing with the news. Small town gossip is something she had never experienced before and the hypocrisy stunned her. The thought of living in that environment made her question her decision to accept Stanton’s offer of marriage. I love how Shute portrayed Mollie!
Beyond the Black Stump brought back a few memories of growing up in the Pilbara region. Although more than a couple of decades later than the time of this story, it was still the Wild West when we lived there, even though we were nowhere near as isolated. Unlike America, relationships between black and white were common and I went to school with a large group of part-Aboriginal kids, although ‘full-blood’ Aboriginals had their own school next door to ours and were educated separately and I think in their own language.
Kindness is a theme that seems to run through his writing, and it appears in different places in this book. It was a quality that attracted Stanton to Molly and it is reciprocated in the ending.