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Little Boy Lost

Fiona McFarlane takes on a colonial Australian trope

The Sun Walks Down (2023) by Fiona McFarlane. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pages.

The Indonesian volcano of Krakatoa erupted in 1883, owing to tectonic shifts occurring over many millions of years. The surrounding archipelago immediately collapsed; billions of tons of ash flooded the atmosphere; tsunamis pummeled surrounding islands and delivered drowned bodies, which piled up on the shore. This destruction would mar the sky for many months and many miles: observers from Adelaide to London marveled at the cauterized shades blooming overhead. Cataloging these shifts from red through green, blue, copper, and magenta, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins made note of their visual and ontological effects. The glow “prolonged the daylight,” he wrote, “and optically changed the season,” making the once-familiar world suddenly and inexplicably unrecognizable.

These strange skies portend the disappearance of six-year-old Denny Wallace in Fiona McFarlane’s new novel, The Sun Walks Down. The sixth and youngest child of a struggling wheat farmer named Mathew and his wife Mary, Denny is the dreamy kind of kid who, bowling stones at a hollow tree, wonders “if the tree might mind having stones bowled at it.” One day, he wanders away from his homestead only to be engulfed by a sudden dust storm. As the ash-ridden sky glows above, the land from which Denny has seemingly vanished—the traditional lands of the Nukunu and Adnyamathanha nations, today known as the Flinders Ranges in the state of South Australia—is rendered uncanny to the people who call it home. Returning from an unsuccessful attempt to locate his son, Mathew notices how the sight of his own yard, now bathed in a “gaudy sunset” and crowded by the horses of strangers who have gathered to assist the search, provokes his “healthy distrust of the unusual.” That same feeling descends upon Mary at the sight of her husband returning alone; hers is a specific kind of bafflement, writes McFarlane, “at having found herself here, in this place, with these people.” By the time the sun has set, and Mathew wonders whether Mary, gazing out into the dark, might be imagining “another life, in which none of this is happening,” we begin to understand that “this” signifies more than the immediate incident of Denny’s disappearance—that there is in fact a long subterranean history now being unearthed by the force of the crisis.

Aware of the handiwork that has gone into cloaking Australia’s ugly colonial history, McFarlane knows that her first task is to unravel it.

The Wallaces’ predicament might register as familiar to Australian readers, who have for centuries devoured the stories of lost children as a kind of cultural pastime. First came the 1803 Sydney Gazette report of a lost “little straggler,” then the disappearances of the Duff siblings in 1864 and the Daylesford children in 1867. Together, these three real-life accounts would flesh out an archetype—young, white, doomed—that is already recognizable to McFarlane’s characters by 1883: even the sergeant charged with Denny’s recovery can’t help but lump him in with “every other boy who’s ever wandered off into the Australian bush.” As children continued disappearing in real life, their stories roused anxiety as well as excitement: when twelve-year-old Clara Crosbie was recovered from the bush in 1885, she was leased by her parents to a waxworks in Melbourne, where she was exhibited to hordes who gawked as she explained “How to Live For Three Weeks in the Bush Without Food.”

Despite the sensation each of these stories caused, a mid-nineteenth century index of juvenile deaths published in the Argus newspaper reveals that children fatally lost to the bush were markedly outnumbered by those who died by other causes, like drowning; in other words, lost children, while a phenomenon in reality, were given new life by journalists, writers, poets, and visual artists, all eager to shape the images which would define a new national identity for the incipient Australian state. It was around this time, in 1866, that the Illustrated Melbourne Post published a narrative alongside a sketch of “Children Lost in the Bush” so long and detailed that readers wondered whether it was true; its writer was only willing to demur that the lost child was “one of those sad, but unfortunately too common, incidents in Australian life, full as it is of that real romance rarely to be exceeded by the most imaginative novelists.” Perhaps this deliberate murkiness later inspired Joan Lindsay, who famously prefaced her 1967 novel: “Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves.”

As it happens, this particular reader was once a skittish fifth-grader tucked into a top bunk on sleepaway camp near Hanging Rock, who found herself fixated on the windowed door separating her cabin from the bush, which framed the silhouette of a silvery gum clawing at the glass. I registered then what Lindsay and the Argus writer both understood: the terror of the lost child story comes not from its veracity but instead its ambiguity, the way that it invites identification and projection. In a country founded on violence that is unambiguous and ongoing to this day, the lost child is a symptom of the colonial imagination that invented it: one that envisions white innocence at the mercy of a treacherous landscape to justify settling a stolen land. When McFarlane sends Denny off the Willochra Plain, she purposefully—and at times self-consciously—stitches his story into this timeworn genre. But aware of the handiwork that has gone into cloaking Australia’s ugly colonial history, McFarlane knows that her first task is to unravel it.

It is only fitting that numerous storytellers stalk McFarlane’s narrative, from the visiting reporter who embellishes his story with details overheard at the local pub; to Bess, a British illustrator who envisions a children’s picture book about a lost boy who befriends a wallaby; to Sergeant Foster, who takes notes during the search for Denny knowing that “whether or not we find the body of the boy, there’s a book in this.” Tentatively titled The Native Australian—not to be confused with “the Australian native,” Foster thinks—the book will argue for federation of the six colonies by envisioning their future nation’s model citizen. As a symbol in service of this cause, Denny will appeal to a readership whose own identity is tethered to the idea of youth: as descendants of the British motherland, aspiring founders of a nascent nation, and part of the wave of “New World” emigrants settling what they perceive as an uncultured wilderness because it lacks the ancient ruins which characterize the civilized “Old World.”

Of course, this youthful characterization hinges upon the audacity to declare terra nullius a continent where Indigenous peoples had lived for over sixty-five thousand years. It was with this conspicuous absurdity that the colonists indeed proceeded to federate in 1901, singing as part of their national anthem “let us all rejoice for we are young and free” while systematically displacing, imprisoning, and massacring the world’s oldest civilizations. But if their contemporaries in America barreled ever westward under the banner of “Manifest Destiny,” in Australia, colonial expansion was less linear. Explorers often died or circled back to the cities, ravaged by the sun and expanse—a legacy reflected by the fact that today, over 80 percent of the Australian population still lives on the southeastern coast. The most revered members of this group of explorers, Robert Burke and William Wills, famously perished alongside several of their crew on a government-sponsored expedition to chart the length of the continent. Plights of this kind would have been familiar to sunburned colonists like McFarlane’s Mary and Mathew, stirring within them the same anxiety evoked by the sight of atrophied wheat: the fear that they would never be able to settle, let alone feel at home, in a land that was never meant to be theirs.

To express this anxiety, colonists turned to the British literature with which they were familiar. There they found the Gothic, a sensibility that thrived in the secret attics of ruined mansions, presumably inhospitable to the fly-ridden outback. Yet a particular strain of Australian Gothic began to flourish precisely in this lack of recognizable ruins, which marked the land as “uncivilized,” and terrifyingly so. When the vicar in The Sun Walks Down, Mr. Daniels, sets off alone to single-handedly save Denny, he contemplates the surrounding desert—a place in his mind with “nothing old enough to have been ruined, nothing that has been destroyed and might be mourned”—before realizing that he is completely lost within it. That disorientation quickly lays bare his existential alienation; overcome by darkness and dehydration, Mr. Daniels despairs that on this continent, everything is “buried in black, and it’s always night, and [he] is always alone.” Elsewhere on McFarlane’s plain, Sergeant Foster’s alienation is edged with the feeling that “in the dark, every rock and bush has a watchful quality,” as if he were “the victim of a silent ambush.” Here the land is not just menacing but actively malevolent, capable of resistance and revenge; it is a place where a child is not simply lost but “swallowed up whole.” By bestowing this specific fear upon her quintessential pioneer, McFarlane reveals the necessity for colonists to invent a horrific landscape against which they could claim their victimhood and ultimately “earn” their heroism.

If the bush, by this formulation, set the stage for character tests, then the moral stakes of these tests were heightened as children became lost within it. When those three small boys wandered away from their homes in the Victorian town of Daylesford in 1867, the community was devastated to learn that—unlike the Duff children who had gone missing three years prior, and only a hundred miles away—each of the children had perished. Yet their deaths were rendered almost irrelevant by the ensuing press coverage, which treated the tragedy as a reaffirmation by the community of its own character. “Adversity . . . tries the heart,” The Daylesford Mercury began:

and often brings out the better qualities of human nature, and the fearful calamity which has caused such excitement of feeling among us during the last few days shows us that the hearts of the people are thoroughly sound, are, to use a common expression, in the right place. A people actuated by such a spirit cannot be a callous or depraved people, and conduct more creditable to themselves and to human nature we cannot well conceive.

These kinds of moral portraits struck a religious chord, appealing to figures like McFarlane’s character Wilhelmina Baumann, a German widow who has learned from working on South Australian vineyards, and “one year of blight [when] we lost everything,” that she was “born to suffer.” In her worldview, a lost child is merely another test of her faith in God—this is also how Mary, the daughter of a famous Reformist preacher, rationalizes Denny’s disappearance. Like the pioneer’s trial in the bush, these tests of faith confirm to the colonists their own worthiness, and moreover, their supposed right to land they had stolen.

In reality, this conclusion was grounded less in virtue than in the logic of property. In White Vanishing, New Zealand scholar and playwright Elspeth Tilley calls this the “moral economy of terra nullius,” whereby “industry, civil propriety, and adherence to Christian morality and Victorian codes create property rights where none existed before.” Dealing in this economy, Mathew seethes when his hired hand, a Yadliawarda man named Billy Rough, refuses to cross country lines in the course of searching for Denny. “Billy isn’t even talking property,” Mathew thinks disparagingly, “he’s talking religion,” which in Mathew’s mind is negotiable: if sin is absolvable by grace, then “there are always bargains to be made with God.” By articulating the religious and proprietary codes guiding the search for his own son, Mathew reveals how the lost child narrative is not merely a story, but a whole cosmology: an interlocking system of morality, myth, and property to sustain the colonists at the center of the universe—and to erase Indigenous peoples from it entirely.

In the end, Denny is lost for seven days and seven nights in the bush—the time that God took to make the universe, and a measurement that George Axam, heir to a sheep shearing fortune, believes in “passionately,” writes McFarlane, “just as he believes in the British monarchy and Greenwich Mean Time: that is, as absolute verities.” This is the span of time, too, in which The Sun Walks Down unfolds by neat, chronological chapters, before growing, in McFarlane’s own words, “a little noisy, a little messy, a little contradictory,” with intrusions—like the “Prayer of the German Widow,” the “Dream of the Pashtun Cameleer,” or the “Vindication of the Ramindjeri Tracker”—by voices who “insisted on being heard.” In that structure and its unraveling exists the novel’s larger modus operandi, which is to prod at colonial conventions from the inside and to attempt, through that process, to expose them—as if the only way out of the lost child trope is through. McFarlane succeeds in producing a metafictional archive of the genre, between her explicit references to the Daylesford three and a thinly veiled allusion to Ethel Pedley’s 1899 children’s book Dot and the Kangaroo (in which a lost girl, not a boy, befriends a kangaroo, rather than a wallaby); you can almost feel her winking at you as she writes, evoking Picnic at Hanging Rock, that Denny’s eldest sister Cissy “isn’t alarmed, because children don’t climb up onto rocks and then vanish from them.”

Adjacent to the tradition of lost children stories is the German folktale of the Pied Piper, who, having been cheated out of payment by a town after luring their rats away, returns to claim its children as retribution. This, too, finds echoes in The Sun Walks Down through the voice of Arranyinha, a Yadliawrda housemaid at the Axam homestead, who recalls how she once recited the tale to the young children in her care—not her own girls, who were taken from her, but the young sons of her employers. It’s a grim irony that each retelling of the lost child story summons outsized sympathy for fictionalized white children while disregarding the countless Indigenous children who were forcibly removed from their families in Australia. Arranyinha refrains from elaborating on the fate of her girls—a silence that speaks volumes—though we can assume that they were part of the Stolen Generations removed from their homes by the government from the mid-1800s to the 1970s through policies designed to eliminate “the Aboriginal problem,” as a 1921 report from the Aborigines Welfare Board called it. It is likely, then, that Arranyinha’s daughters were severed from their communities and culture, and perhaps subjected to abuse by a missionary or foster family which used them as cheap, if not unpaid labor.

There is no colonial contact in this context that does not involve some crucial, and crucially overlooked, disappearance. The same is true of McFarlane’s novel: Henry Axam takes Billy under his wing after settling the land on which Billy was born, teaching him how to ride a horse and muster cattle—the skills that “Billy would need in his life at Henry’s side”—all while banning Yadliawarda languages and initiation ceremonies. As a result, there are no longer qualified elders to perform Billy’s initiation by the time he comes of age. Though he has survived into adulthood, unlike many other Indigenous children of the Stolen Generations, Billy’s childhood and identity have been irrevocably lost. “If Henry Axam hadn’t singled Billy out,” writes McFarlane, “he would know how to speak to dust storms.”

When Henry’s wife Joanna overhears Arranyinha retelling the story of the Pied Piper to her sons, she asks where it came from, having forgotten that she told it to Arranyinha herself. This is a passing moment in the novel, but it intimates the process by which we absorb certain stories until their values are so lodged within our psyches we forget their origins. It made me wonder, then, about the limits of critically retelling a story which has been served up, at least to Australians, as cultural bread and butter—if it is possible to thoroughly critique a tradition while in many ways adhering to it. The novel’s title, for example, is derived from Swedish, a language in which the sun doesn’t set as much as it walks down. “So much more activity in his first language,” thinks the artist Karl Rapp, who unwillingly finds himself in the desert at his wife Bess’s volition and recalls this phrase during one of many unsuccessful attempts to commit the sunset to paper. McFarlane goes on to detail the ways in which Karl will fetishize a landscape which he ultimately resents—“He thinks that if he lived here he would make every effort to leave,” she writes.

One could argue that Karl’s presence in the novel is cautionary. But then why reach for his perspective to title it? Perhaps the choice indicates some sympathy, not with European settlers per se, but with artists, whose role McFarlane aims to interrogate. In a fever dream of a chapter centering on Bess, we hear her make a statement before the “Justice of the Court of Both Private and Public Opinion” in response to charges that she “willfully did prolong and make use of the suffering of others in order to facilitate the execution of her art.” In the novel, Bess and Karl delay Denny’s going home after discovering him by a gorge so that Bess can use him as a model for the lost boy in her book. Through this broken fourth wall, Bess expresses McFarlane’s inevitable anxiety about her project, which risks reenacting the very harm that it sets out to resist.

The lost child trope may not be useful for reimagining because its inherent futurity can default at any time to resignation about the present.

Perhaps guided by this anxiety, McFarlane fleshes out Denny’s interior life in an attempt to avoid flattening him out into another lost child symbol. Swirling around in his psyche are narratives absorbed from the adults around him: the Bible stories of his parents, the Greek mythology of which his sister Cissy is fond, and the Yadliawarda tales that Billy shares with him. Denny operates according to a “cosmology of his own,” McFarlane has explained, “that is shaping his entire experience of the landscape and is why he behaves the way that he does”—why he believes that Bess and Karl are fearsome gods, for example, when he stumbles across their campsite. This characterization begins to provoke our incredulity when pushed to its outer limits, however, as when Denny also mistakes the voices of his father and Billy for those of gods, despite their presumable familiarity. Faltering as a living, breathing character, Denny in these moments reads like the embodiment of a different concept than the one McFarlane set out to deconstruct—an ideal colonial subject who might grow up, by virtue of his open-mindedness, to view the project with suspicion.

Even with its progressive intentions, this kind of maneuver ultimately feels recursive. The lost child trope may not be useful for reimagining because its inherent futurity can default at any time to resignation about the present—the kind which runs through Bess when she first encounters Denny at the gorge. In this moment, Bess is reminded of a friend’s child who died soon after birth because she believes that Denny, like that baby and the colonists more broadly, “doesn’t belong to this place and will have to leave it soon.” Hers is representative of a broader “cultural death wish,” as the literary scholar Peter Pierce puts it in The Country of Lost Children: certainly a particularly Australian phenomenon, but perhaps an increasingly common one as climate anxiety in the West, projected on the next generation, transforms children into bastions of a brighter future—an opportunity to defer reckoning with past wrongdoings. McFarlane’s novel ultimately reinvests in the “moral economy of terra nullius” by suggesting that future Australians can act as a corrective to colonial atrocities, rather than an extension of them.

In the gulf between a tradition founded on this moral economy and a speculative future in which we have divested from it, we might take some guidance from one of The Sun Walks Down’s epigraphs. Excerpted from “The Past” by the poet and activist Oodgeroo, a descendant of the Noonuccal people of Minjerribah, it reminds us that “now is so small a part of time.” The speaker of this poem dreams about “a camp fire in the bush, among / my own people,” with “no walls about me” and “the stars over me,” all while sitting alone in a chair before an electric heater in suburbia. It feels like whiplash to be bounced so swiftly between the open plain and a suburban living room. The disorientation provides some insight—as much as it can to a non-Indigenous reader—into the displacement still endured by Indigenous peoples to this day. The violence of this dislocation comes from its enforcement as well its magnitude, which approaches a total rewriting of the universe. Any story that sedulously engages with Australia’s colonial history, inextricable from any facet of its culture, might find in that destabilization something like a possibility: that reality—and the stories we tell about it—might just as radically be rewritten.