Available: The Penguin Century of Australian Stories
A confession: Up until six years ago, I had never read an Australian short story. Not a word by Henry Lawson, Peter Carey, Murray Bail or Cate Kennedy. In fact, the only Australian book I had read was Marcus Clarke’s “For the Term of his Natural Life” which I found to be overlong and overwritten.
Then, in my first few weeks in Newcastle I picked up a copy of The Penguin Century of Australian Stories and opened a page at random. By a stroke of luck, I straight away came across one of the great Australian short stories, Squeaker’s Mate by Barbara Baynton.
Squeaker, a feckless and lazy bush farmer, is cajoled into helping cut down a tree for fencing by his “mate,” a woman whose real name we never learn. When the tree falls on top of Squeaker’s mate and leaves her crippled, the venality of Squeaker and bush society is laid bare. Squeaker shows less concern for his mate than for the dog, and the woman of the local town feel sympathy only for Squeaker, being shackled to a cripple.
Over time Squeaker’s treatment of his mate worsens. He allows their property to go to ruin as he spends their hard-won savings on drink. Yet Squeaker’s mate never upbraids the man for her ill treatment, for she loves him despite his many faults. When one day Squeaker moves his old mate out of the house to a shed, and brings in a new, much younger mate to live with, events gradually come to a terrible climax.
Why it Sticks
Barbara Baynton knew what she wanted to write. Her influences were the great Russian novelists of the nineteenth century because they “are always doing something. They write about love and death, and war and violence- not about infantile romances and tea parties.” In Squeaker’s Mate Baynton writes powerfully about love, death, violence, cruelty and hypocrisy with a complexity that is lacking in most early Australian short fiction. She creates two unforgettable characters, the selfish “Squeaker” and his stoic, loving mate, all too aware of the worthlessness of Squeaker, but unable to stop loving him. In Squeaker’s Mate Baynton certainly “does something.” The final image of the story lingers in the mind for days.
On a personal note, Squeaker’s Mate opened a door for me into the Australian Short Story, leading me eventually to such writers as Peter Cowan, Glenda Adams and Gillian Shears amongst many others. And for that, I’ll always love this story.