I’ve always pictured whaling through the lens of Moby-Dick or the story of the Essex (retold recently in the movie In the Heart of the Sea) – long, distant sea voyages punctuated by the butchery of rendering for oil a recently harpooned giant. In her first novel, Rush Oh!, Shirley Barrett offers a different take on the whaling adventure story.
Nineteen-year-old Mary Davidson is the oldest child of George (Fearless) Davidson (a real figure), a master whaler plying the water off the south coast of New South Wales, near the town of Eden. Whalers in Eden launch from the shore in small boats and work collaboratively with a local pod of orcas to hunt down right and humpback whales. During the season of 1908, however, whales are few and the Davidson family is struggling financially. In between cooking for the whale crew and caring for her younger, mother-less siblings, Mary manages to fall in love with John Beck, a (possibly) former Methodist preacher and current member of her father’s whaling crew.
“Written” by Mary as a memoir, Rush Oh! feels fresh and funny, even if some of the plot devices follow the old themes of a “novel of manners.” There is a fancy dress ball, a silly younger sister who elopes with an unsuitable groom – even a character named Darcy. The book really shines in Mary’s secondhand descriptions of both failed and successful whale hunts. Barrett’s choice of a young, female narrator upends the whaling genre while also critiquing its savagery.
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby
Rating: Highly Recommended
Challenge: Published in 2016