Although born in England, it was the Australian bush that truly captured Ethel Pedley's heart. Sadly she passed away before the publication of Dot and the Kangaroo and so did not live to see its phenomenal success, but thankfully, had previously made arrangements for Frank Mahoney to illustrate the story. Mahoney clearly held the same vision Pedley had, not only for the story, but to portray Australia as it truly was. This was a book that allowed the 'real' Australia to be known. Not only is it set deep in the heart of the bush, but the illustrations are undoubtedly Australian, without the influence of England which was so common at that time.
Still in print and read by children today, it is Australia's first animal fantasy and surprisingly innovative for it's time, given the environmental theme. It has enjoyed many reprints (see below), with black and white, half-tone and full colour illustrations included in the various issues. As Saxby comments, Dot and the Kangaroo 'has endured because of it's human and literary qualities' (1969, p. 52), for Pedley's abilites as an author are quite astounding. She cleverly creates a natural history lesson at the same time as providing entertainment.
The basic plot of a young child lost in the bush, was a popular one during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and stems from the numerous real life situations that occurred. The fantasy twist however appears early in the text, when Dot is given the magic berries which enable her to understand the language of every bush creature. Thus we are introduced to each creatures character, especially the kind and gentle Kangaroo. Birds and animals are given their correct names, with the platypus even referred to by his Latin genus. Birds are not only given their correct names, such as the Night Jars, Curlews and Willy Wag-tails, but she also makes specific reference to their particular habits. The Bower birds are seen adding decorations to their bowers and the Bittern helps Dot find water in amongst the moss. Pedley's knowledge of the little known Australian bush, is quite outstanding for its time, the habits and calls of the Koala and the ancestry of the platypus are not known by many even today.
Pedley obviously enjoys a touch of humour as well, with her occasional play on words aimed at both adults as well as the children. For example, when Kangaroo offers to help Dot find her 'lost way' or, more for her adult audience, her habit of 'jumping to conclusions'. Humour is also used when making reference to the humans of the world. 'I wonder why all your fur grows upon the top of your head, I wonder why you humans are made so badly?' asks Kangaroo. We are excused though for knowing so little, in that we are 'post-glacial' and therefore 'without any ancestry or manners whatever'. But then a much more serious message is given, when Pedley suggests we can live in harmony without, 'murdering creatures and devouring them'. Then even more surprising for the time is the comment, 'The Black Humans kill and devour us; but they, even, are not so terrible as the Whites, who delight in taking our lives, and torturing us just as an amusement'. With comments like this it seems Pedley had quite a different view of this amazing 'new' land and its inhabitants than most at that time. She continuously refers to the beauty and magnificence of not only the bush but also its creatures, allowing Dot to declare she will grow up to be a much better, improved human, from all of her experiences.
Humour is also used, with a sarcastic look at the justice system through Dot's trial and court case in chapter eleven. Here we are shown the foolishness of humans ways, far more meaningful to adults than to children. The swallow presides over proceedings having built his nest in the eaves of the appropriately named Gabblebabble Court House. The Pelican is told he must 'get the prisoner convicted as guilty' even though he doesn't think she is - 'That doesn't matter at all, you've got to, Its good human law' he is told. The cockatoo is given the role of judge since he understands human talk, of which he precedes to give a demonstration - 'Go to Jericho! Twenty to one on the favourite! I'm your man! Now then ma'am: hurry up, don't keep the coach waiting! Give 'um their 'eds, Bill! So long! Ta-ra-ra, boom-di-ay! God save the King!'. The trial begins but then is halted again because, 'nothing could be done until they had some horsehair!…Human justice must be done with horsehair'! Finally the trial comes to a close as the indignant pelican announces, . The entire scene is truly a mischievous dig at the justice system and society which, needless to say, still goes on today.
In 1965, Angus and Robertson returned to the style of the 1900 edition and produced a 'child centred' edition, which reproduced Mahoney's original etchings in full, with the same type layout and in the same larger format. Although the first publication of Dot and the Kangaroo was produced in England, the etchings were created here in Australia, the plates of which can still be seen today in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. In 1977, Yoram Gross adapted the story to an animated film, which was also published by Angus and Robertson in the same year.
The more I study this book, the more I realise what a masterpiece it really is, it has all the action and drama of any modern novel, with a hint of fantasy. The chase through the bush is filled with suspense and excitement, with great sadness at the near death of Kangaroo and the loss of her joey. Clever puns and plays with words abound and the themes and comments on conservation and humankind's attitude to nature are very up to date. Children are given clear messages of the importance of uniting and harmonising with nature and also forgiving those who have wronged us. Written with surprising foresight, the themes are very relevant to the new milliennium - Care for the environment and conservation of our bush and it's creatures, not to kill unnecessarily and that we can live in harmony with nature.
Mahony's etchings of the Australian bush and it's creatures, shows his outstanding abilities as an artist and also as an observer of the world around him. Not there for mere decoration, each picture adds character to the story. Twenty full-page illustrations, including the cover design, framed by the white of each page, appear throughout. Printing techniques and cost of the time only allowed for a single colour to be reproduced so Mahony has carefully chosen to work with green inks and washes, to fit with the theme and content of the book. Later copies, though containing prints of his originals, were produced in black and white. Foregrounds and backgrounds usually appear out of focus, with shadows and vague shapes of the trees and bush in the distance. The main characters and content of the picture though are very detailed, despite his sketchy technique.
Mahony's depiction of the native birds and animals is quite extraordinary, since his specialty was in fact horses. Each is very lifelike and in perfect perspective. He has obviously studied each animal in great detail. Although each animal speaks throughout the text, at no time does any animal appear 'humanised' in the illustrations. Each creature is beautifully drawn with great attention to the detail of their special features and body stance. He has obviously observed them from every possible angle and their size appears in correct proportion to other creatures and the bush. The facial expressions of each creature are drawn with surprising sensitivity, working in unity with the text itself and the character of each in the story.
Mahony is also a master of the use of light, shading and tone, creating great mood and atmosphere with each sketch. Night scenes appear with most shapes and forms seen only in shadow, with the main focus highlighted by use of white (or un-inked areas), for the moonlight, or in the case of 'The Corroboree' - the firelight (p. 48). Though the full picture is quite hard to discern, such highlights give great depth and feeling to the scene and display his ability to make use of even a single line for the desired effect. Lines are also used to denote movement and height. 'The fight between the kookaburra and the snake' (p. 17), is a good example. Here Dot is seen hiding in the background, but no details are given, simply shadows and vague shapes. The foreground however shows the battle and Mahony's use of line giving added pace. Lines are used to show the motion and frenzy of the moment, with the bird on one leg, wings beating furiously. Again the kookaburra is very lifelike, with his beady eye and ruffled feathers.
Dot, though rarely seen in great detail, is also well proportioned, with body stance adding to her overall moods and expressions. Her often angelic features and slight smile display the fondness she has for each creature, particularly apparent as she watches the platypus in full voice, with head back, singing, or in waving adieu to her friend Kangaroo. In the cover illustration where the kangaroo first approaches Dot, we only see her profile, but clearly she has collapsed from exhaustion and the overall impression is one of having 'given up'. Mahony manages to capture emotions well, through body stance alone, especially in her desperate plea to stop her father shooting her friend (p. 102).
Mahony's and indeed, Pedley's knowledge of the Australian bush and its creatures, was no doubt for its time, quite astounding. Their experience of the bush was obviously first hand, with animals shown that are now quite rare, the spotted quoll for instance. 'The court of animals' (p. 83), shows the vast number of animals they must each have studied. The bush itself is also uniquely Australian, not influenced by England's trees, like so many of the artists of his day.
1899, Dot and the Kangaroo, Thomas Burleigh, London, UK. (reprinted 1900)
Reprinted 1906, 1913, 1916, 1920, 1923, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, NSW.
Reprinted 1924, 1925, 1928, 1929, Cornstalk, Sydney, NSW.
Reprinted 1929, 1933, 1934, 1938, 1940, 1941, 1949, 1951, 1965 (using Frank Mahoney's original plates),
1967, 1970, 1972
First published in paperback using Frank Mahoney's illustrations in 1991, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, NSW.
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