The Bailey’s Book Prize: Rush! Oh! by Shirley Barrett

I don’t know if you know, guys, but whales are amazing. I have quite a few books on the life history and biology of cetaceans of various species, and even have a whatsapp group with two of my other whale obsessed pals. So you’d naturally be surprised at me saying I recently read a novel about the whale hunting industry that decimated global populations and loved it (the book not the hunting obvs). I mean, I was surprised too.

Rush! Oh! is the first novel by Shirley Barrett, screenwriter and director, and its a pretty excellent debut, tackling a lesser known piece of history.

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Did you know that in New South Wales the whale hunters used to use other whales to act as sheepdogs to help bring down the target whales?! Orcas, yes the same magnificent beasts as poor old Tilikum,  cooperated in a symbiotic/mutualistic relationship with the human whale hunters to bring down whales, which they would share the bounty of – the orcas would get the tongue and lips, and the humans would get the blubber to render into oil. It’s absolutely fascinating, and apparently Eden has a small museum about it.

Not only that but the orcas could distinguish between the boats used and so wouldn’t hunt with competitors. Loyal sheepdog orcas. You got it.

And not only that, but they had a distinct method of communicating with the whale hunters that they were trailing a target whale, through flop-tail, upon seeing the whale hunters would head towards the orcas ready to spear.Rush! Oh! itself is the call to action upon seeing a whale or seeing Tom’s flop-tail signals.

I must admit I fell down an internet hole reading about it when I initially finished the book and while writing this review, probably why its taken me 9 weeks to write it (admittedly still not as bad as my 80for80 output). Also I realise that I’m talking more and more about the history and less about the actual book, so I’ll get back to it. But really, the history is fascinating grim stuff.

Mary Davidson, the eldest daughter of the fictionalised Davidson clan (the Davidsons were real but Barrett has developed her own version of the family), decides to chronicle the difficult year of 1908, a year where the weather and whales were transient. Amidst all this arrives John Beck, mysterious and completely alluring to young Mary. Thus alongside the horrors of subsistence whaling forms a gentle romance, creating the most bizarre but realistic juxtaposition. Mary is strong and wilful, caring, and determined. I really liked her, probably more than her sister Louisa who is wonderfully flighty.

This is a really historically rich novel. Alongside the whaling industry, there is alludes to racism the white people direct towards aboriginal people, many of whom make up the Davidson’s whaling crew – important to remember that they still face oppression to this day, of course.

I really enjoyed Rush! Oh! and loved the beautiful illustrations of the whales and characters that pepper the text.

Why should it win?

Barrett combines a lesser known fascinating bit of grim history with a light story of family, first loves and community, creating a book both light and dark at once. Very enjoyable.

What to read next:

I was kindly sent postcards of some of the illustrations from Virago and Little Brown Book Company along with a review copy – thanks guys!