Lately I’ve been thinking about dogs and dingoes and wildness. I’ve just re-read sturdy hardback library copies of Frank Dalby Davison’s Dusty, about a dingo-kelpie cross in rural Australia in the middle of the twentieth century, and Jack London’s Call of the Wild, about a sled dog in the Yukon during the Klondike goldrush in the 1890s.
I read Dusty for the first time as a child, probably after one of our cattle dogs gave birth to a litter of gorgeous, defenceless little white pups, because I was deeply affected by a scene that occurred at the beginning of the story. I thought it was one of the saddest things I’d ever read. On re-reading I discover that this scene is not on the first page, as I’d remembered, but in the second chapter: a man riding through the bush comes upon a dingo lair where there are three pups. He shoots the pups’ mother as she returns to the lair and kills two of the pups by picking them up by the hind legs and bashing their skulls against a rock. My eleven-year-old self stopped reading here and cried about all the injustice in the world.
The remaining pup becomes Dusty, who is sold to a good man called Tom. Tom trains Dusty to become a fine sheep dog and the bond between man and dog is strong. But Dusty’s ‘dingo blood’ starts to affect his behaviour—he stays out at night to hunt sheep.
Dusty is a realist novel and there’s lots of detail about rural work. Davison delineates Dusty’s perceptions and intelligence regarding the world of men and sheep, and the other ‘wild’ world that is not governed by the laws of men and sheep. Tom’s throwing in his livelihood for a dog is perhaps the least credible part of the story. But Dusty is really a love story, and the book turns on this irrationality, the love between man and dog, and dog and man. Tom thinks of Dusty like a son, but I think their reciprocal relationship goes deeper than that. The dog—such a physical, in-the-moment, animal, its ‘dark tan body flying along above a continuous twinkle of light tan paws’ —is Tom’s inner life.
This time when I read Dusty I was most moved by a scene that occurs about two-thirds of the way through. Tom and Dusty have been camping out in the bush and Tom is gravely ill. Dusty knows something is wrong because Tom does not get up in the morning. Dusty is not allowed in Tom’s tent but later, when Tom starts talking, Dusty goes inside and sits beside Tom’s bunk ‘with head hanging a little, unsure of himself, prepared to be ordered out’. After Tom speaks again, Dusty raises himself up on the edge of the bunk. ‘Tom opened his eyes and, after a long interval, spoke again. Dusty dropped from the edge of the bunk, slunk out, and flung himself down. He failed to see Tom’s hand reach after him, and when he saw it dangling from the bunk, looked away from it for fear that he had done wrong in entering the tent.’
Australian books and films too often let the silence do the talking, to my mind. I reckon someone could write a thesis on the conversations that didn’t happen. But this scene is different. It’s the lost opportunity for connection that is so sad here. The misunderstanding of intentions—Dusty thinking he has done something wrong; Tom, dying, reaching out for the being he loves most in the world.
After Tom dies, Dusty fends for himself, though he does look for Tom and, even though he is living wild and it is very dangerous to be near homesteads and camps, he is fascinated by men. He lives a relatively long life; he leaves both tame and wild progeny. He is not killed by baits or bullets but by an accident of nature, a dead branch falling off a tree, just as he was conceived when the sap rose through ‘grass and greenwood’. All in all, Dusty has a good life. So why does this book leave me feeling so melancholy?
The Call of the Wild ends on a completely different note with Buck, the novel’s dog hero, as a super-dog-wolf. Without mentioning all his heroic exploits in the previous chapters, in the last chapter alone he single-muzzledly takes down an adult male moose, kills and disperses members of a band of hostile Native Americans, and shows his supremacy over a pack of wolves. The book leaves Buck roaming with the timberwolves in the Yukon howling ‘a song of a younger world’. Perhaps Buck’s song was an elegy for ‘wilderness’ that even Jack London knew when he published Call in 1903 was a fiction.
Call is shorter and more dramatic than Dusty. More fantastic. The cruelty is crueller. It was the cruelty that struck me when I read it as a child. Buck harnesses ‘the law of fang and club’, assumes an ascendant power in this ‘eat or be eaten’ world and, although he too visits the valley where his master was murdered, he embraces his life in the wild without a second thought. There’s great joy in London’s descriptions of Buck: ‘Life streamed through him in splendid flood, glad and rampant, until it seemed that it would burst him asunder in sheer ecstasy and pour forth generously over the world.’
The saddest bit of Call for me, this time, was a death that was not violent. Dave, a wheel-dog who pulls closest to the sled, becomes sick and can no longer work and the sleds move off leaving him behind howling to his mates. Rather than leaving Dave to die, one of the men goes back to shoot him. It’s London’s description of the merciless disparity between Dave’s will and his physical ability that undoes me here.
The copy of Call that I’ve just re-read, a Kingfisher Classics edition published in 2002, has generously proportioned type and interesting woodcut illustrations. I requested it easily through my local library. Dusty was more difficult: my local library obtained a copy for me on interlibrary loan from the State Library of NSW. This 1991 reprint of a 1983 Angus & Robertson Classics edition with a Hans Heysen watercolour of shorn sheep and gum trees on the dust jacket originally belonged to another local library and before that, by the looks of the handwritten inscription on the inside of the front cover, was once a gift. The book is in very good condition but its pages are slightly tan around the edges, which suits it, I think. But Dusty has not always been a scarce book. Originally published in 1946, it was reprinted many times in the 1950s and 60s. Now it’s as though Dusty is obsolete, which—when I think about the fine, recent edition of Call—makes me sad, too. For if we don’t value our culture, who will?
Rowena Lennox has published poems, short articles and essays. You can find her essay ‘Coming Full Circle: the Visiting Writer’ here. Her book Fighting Spirit of East Timor: the Life of Martinho da Costa Lopes won the 2001 NSW Premier’s General History Award. She is writing a book about dingoes.
25 Feb 14 at 21:22
I can hardly believe my luck in finding your article about DUSTY via an internet search tonight. As a Sydney schoolboy during the early 50s, I was sent to rellies during school hols at Walcha NSW….which I absolutely loved. One day back home I borrowed; what I now realise was; DUSTY and have longed ever since to read it again. The circumstances of DUSTY’s death have stuck in my mind all along and have always acted as a warning to me of the potential hazards of our native fauna. Now a beautiful 8 yo girl at Pitt Town has suffered the same fate as fictional DUSTY.
Sad, really sad!
26 Feb 14 at 16:42
Hi Colin, I’m glad this article brought back good memories. Dusty is a book that has stayed in my mind since childhood, too. I think Davison was trying to give Dusty a good death, a chance death, a contingent death, not a death by baits or traps or bullets. But of course its a senseless death for the girl at Pitt Town. As you say,it’s very, very sad. Maybe your memory extends to Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians? Was Judy, the vibrant daughter in that novel, killed by the falling branch of a tree? Just after she’d removed a tick from her little brother (the Major, I think he was called)? Hope you find a copy of Dusty to read again. And aren’t internet searches amazing!
18 Dec 14 at 21:49
Hi Row I cry everytime I read storm boy. Fair go for our dingo’s I’ve often thought of bowie & possum especially Bowie who coukd. Jump as high as the stars.
08 Jun 15 at 20:47
Scott! Wow! How are you? Yes, I think of Possie and Beau (apparently that’s how his name was meant to be spelt not that it mattered to us – or him!) – and Ruff and Humphrey! And all those dogs who were so much part of our lives. I haven’t checked here for comments for so long… Do you have a dog now? I have a beautiful kelpie – cattle dog called Zefa. She looks like a little dingo, creamy coloured. It’s really tough what dingoes have to endure. I hope attitudes toward them can change… Such senseless killing.
08 Jun 15 at 20:48
Oops, Scott, forgot to put my name in. So good to hear from you.