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Review: Rush Oh!, by Shirley Barrett
Little, Brown, 2016. 353 pp. $25

Where I live, in Seattle, whales are both a cultural icon and a marvel. Only the other week, a gray whale wandered into the locks between Lakes Union and Washington. As you may imagine, that created a stir and a delicate rescue operation, as cetaceans aren’t known for their ability to make U-turns in narrow lanes. I also fondly recall family vacations with the kids in Canada’s Gulf Islands, between the coast of Washington and Vancouver Island, where we often saw pods of orcas swim past, a marine ballet of such beauty that I felt honored, small, and insignificant.

Twofold Bay, New South Wales, was an important whaling center (Courtesy Wikemedia Commons; public domain).

Twofold Bay, New South Wales, was an important whaling center (Courtesy Wikemedia Commons; public domain).

So I picked up Rush Oh!, a novel about whaling in Australia during the early twentieth century, with a stone in my heart. Was I supposed to root for the impoverished whaling families who went hungry if they sold no whale oil or whalebone, or the magnificent creatures of the deep? And, once I began reading, what was I supposed to make of the orcas that harried the larger whales into harpoon range in return for a literal cut of the profits? Were they traitors or friends?

However, I’m happy to report that Rush Oh! is a wonderful book, a delicate authorial operation that surprises and enchants with no heavy lifting. Barrett glosses over nothing, neither the brutality of killing and capturing a whale, nor the characters of the men who do this work at Twofold Bay, nor the hardscrabble life of Eden, New South Wales. But this isn’t a novel about whaling as much as it is about love, or the lengths a person can and should go to get what he or she wants. Just as it takes great effort to track and capture a whale, so it does to find love or realize a dream.

At nineteen, Mary Davidson has particular trouble realizing her own–or even allowing herself to have them. In the six years since her mother died, she’s been maid-of-all-work at her father’s whaling station and surrogate mother to her younger brothers and sisters. She cooks for the family and the whaling crews, keeps house, teaches her siblings their letters, and makes sure her father, a respected man of whom she’s in awe, has what he needs. Mary wants more from life but also assumes that servitude is her lot and that she has no choice, either as a woman or as George “Fearless” Davidson’s eldest child. She might have had an easier time had she social graces, a fair face, or the courage to speak up. Those belong to the next sister in line, Louisa; their rivalry frames the story.

Mary hungers for warmth, whether from her father, siblings, or a man, and gets precious little. She notices that the whaling men stop swearing and mind their manners when Louisa’s around, entranced by her looks and “the will-o’-the-wisp way she floated about, avoiding anything that might look like work. The various flaws of her character seemed to pass undetected.”

One pleasure of reading Rush Oh! is Mary’s wry, naive voice, a pitch-perfect narration. You see what she sees and laugh, but you also see what she misses, which is a lot. For instance, Louisa is indeed a piece of work, selfish and willful. But her real advantage over Mary is that she knows what she wants and sets out to get it. Nowhere is the comparison more evident than in Mary’s attraction for John Beck, a newcomer to the whaling crew who may (or may not) have been a Methodist minister. In fact, there are several things he may or may not have done. But Mary falls for him, and the reader senses that hers is a heart about to be broken.

I love witty writing, and there’s plenty here. Consider this passage about Mr. and Mrs. Maudry, the family’s name for a pair of aggressive plovers that

. . . when they were not preoccupied with matters nesting . . . contented themselves with stalking broodingly about the garden and glowering at us. Mr. Maudry in particular possessed a malevolent air similar to that of a Land and Tax officer or Customs agent, an effect enhanced by the plovers’ plumage, in which nature appeared to be imitating the black-collared suit coats of the kind favored by my late paternal grandfather. By all accounts entirely capable of flight, the Maudrys for the most part elected not to, preferring to spend their days instead lurking ominously amongst the jonquils.

About those orcas, known as Killers. They have names, behaviors particular to each individual, a sense of humor, and loyalty to the whalers, who consider it a crime to kill one–especially the Aboriginal hunters, who believe each orca holds an ancestor’s spirit. These creatures actually existed; one, known as Tom, lived about sixty years, and when he died in 1930, the newspapers noted the fact.

All of which underlines how Rush Oh! plumbs the space between truth and fiction, and what you think you know about each.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.