Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett
Mary Davidson is the eldest daughter of a whaling family living in Eden on the rugged south coast of New South Wales. In Rush Oh!, she narrates her family’s tumultuous experiences during the whaling season of 1908. It comes as little surprise that eking out a living based on the unpredictable movements of whales and the weather proves to be difficult; the surprising part is that Mary’s story is so bittersweet, relatable and funny.
Much of the book’s wry humour comes from Mary’s attempts to woo the mysterious new crew member, John Beck. Equally endearing are author Shirley Barrett’s portraits of the whaling crew, who include several seasoned Indigenous whalers, a nervous ex-Methodist minister and the disreputable Salty, self-appointed ‘Professor of Whales’.
The most compelling aspect of the story is the cooperation between the Eden whalers and the pod of Killer whales living in Twofold Bay. Tom, the leader of the Killers, is drawn straight from Eden’s whaling history and brought vividly to life, his wilfulness and impatience causing just as much frustration amongst the whalers as excitement. Barrett has drawn skilfully from newspaper reports of the time, and many of the most apparently fanciful parts of the story turn out to be grounded in real historical events.
Barrett does not shy away from the brutality of hunting whales with harpoons, but this story’s morals are satisfyingly complex. Mary and her siblings struggle to reconcile the violence of their family business with the need to make enough money to eat. One of the most moving scenes in the book sees Mary confront her aging father after he rows out to kill a whale on his own, for reasons he cannot fully explain.
Rush Oh! is a thoroughly enjoyable blend of gentle melancholy and warm humour.