|Issue 41, February 2007|
Revisiting Dot and the Kangaroo: Finding a Way in the Australian Bush
by Ulla Rahbek
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Ethel C. Pedley's classic children's book, Dot and the Kangaroo (1899), is traditionally described as a story about a little girl lost in the bush. The tale even begins with the concise statement: 'Little Dot had lost her way in the bush' (1). But upon rereading the text it strikes me that Dot is not so much lost as found. Indeed, in this paper I want to suggest that Dot and the Kangaroo may be read as a story about a little girl found in the bush by the Kangaroo. It is the indigenous creature who can show Dot how to find the true values of the Australian land and its bush creatures. The path towards enlightenment is bumpy - but Dot is protected in the safe haven of the Kangaroo's pouch. The journey takes Dot deep into the Australian bush. Over the course of five days Dot is not only offered the wisdom and generosity of the Kangaroo, but the 'berries of understanding' also open her ears to the kookaburra, the platypus, the opossum, the koala, the emu and several other types of birds. Dot learns, this paper argues, the importance of security and a sense of place from these animals, a security they themselves have lost in the wake of the European settlers' arrival.
This animal request for a safe haven is imagined in the text as an antipodean version of the classical topos of the locus amoenus - pleasant place - here centred on the stream, creek, or billabong. Dot comes to understand the idea of a safe place so well that when she finally finds her way home, she reciprocates the kindness of the benign bush creatures by creating a locus amoenus in her own back yard, a protected and beautiful place providing water and peace, a concrete embodiment of her new enlightenment.
The text begins with an epigraph that points to H. M. Saxby's suggestion that Dot and the Kangaroo is a 'plea for the conservation of Australian wildlife' (1969: 183): 'To the children of Australia in the hope of enlisting their sympathies for the many beautiful, amiable, and frolicsome creatures of their fair land, whose extinction, through ruthless destruction, is being surely accomplished' (epigraph, np). Pedley's early observation and warning that the Australian creatures are gradually becoming extinct - as well as her appeal to the children of Australia to try to avoid this catastrophe - give credence to Saxby's claim. In addition, the young protagonist appeals directly to children, and allows them to identify with her. Pedley's appeal for the preservation of the animals is presented not unlike the way in which World Wildlife Fund's children's club - in Denmark called the Panda Club - addresses its audience. It does not seem quaint or strange to modern youngsters' ears over a hundred years later. On the other hand, the epigraph ensures the reader is directly aware of Pedley's conservation message The epigraph continues to be relevant not only for Australia then, but, perhaps, for the entire planet, today. Pedley wants her readers enlightened in just the ways the Kangaroo and other animals seek to instruct Dot.
Brenda Niall reads the story as a 'bushland fantasy' peopled with humanised animals (1988: 547). To Ken Goodwin, Dot and the Kangaroo is a generically mixed narrative: an adventure story and a fairytale interspersed with realistic observations as well as satire and farce (1986: 48). It is indeed an adventure story, but contrary to the typical adventure story this one has a girl protagonist and a female kangaroo who both worry about the state of Dot's dress and hair. The fairytale aspect of the story is there from the very beginning: like Little Red Riding Hood, Dot has strayed further into to the bush while picking flowers, and just as happened to Alice in Wonderland, she is distracted by a hare (not a white rabbit) and pursues it enthusiastically:
It is thus an (introduced) animal that leads her astray in this story where animals generally hold all the bush land wisdom.
When Dot realises she is lost, memories of another lost boy and the 'terrible men' (2) who made up the search party, leave her sobbing and 'covering her eyes so as not to see the cruel wild bush in which she was lost'(3).1 This self-imposed posture is indicative of Dot's ignorance and blindness to the true state of affairs in the bush. In her visionless position she cannot see and understand the beauty of the bush. She is not lost very long, however. Indeed, she is immediately found by the Kangaroo, who steers Dot along the road to knowledge and enlightenment almost at once. With the help of 'berries of understanding' Dot is at first greatly surprised to hear 'the gentle, soft voice of the kind animal' (4). The kangaroo is thus cast as a contrast to the terrible men of the remembered rescue party with 'their big deep voices [.] tall and brown and fierce, with their rough bristly breads' (2) who went to look for the little lost boy that Dot recollected. This description of the kangaroo might be read as an example of Pedley's romanticisation of the bush.2 But it may also be indicative of Pedley's narrative technique, fashioning her story around easily understood binary oppositions. This would appeal to children's tendency to divide the world into good and bad. To Dot these human rescuers are fearsome and threatening, much more terrifying than simply being lost. Their masculine insensitivity and uncouth ways contrast sharply with the gentleness and grace of the Kangaroo and the first image of a safe haven in the story: the pouch. Not only does the kangaroo find Dot, she also provides her with 'the cosiest, softest little bag imaginable' (6). Indeed, as Saxby writes: 'The lost girl finds refuge and security in the person of the kangaroo, who, while remaining true to her animal nature, has endearing and noble qualities' (53). It is from the vantage point of the kangaroo's pouch - 'her little refuge' (10) - and under her protection that Dot embarks on her way home. Because it is the way home that Dot has lost, as we read in the fist line of the story, and it is the way home that they search for. But first Dot needs a history and wildlife lesson that will help her appreciate the unique qualities of the Australian bush.
The Kangaroo is guide and companion for Dot on her quest for knowledge. The kind animal also represents the security Dot needs to absorb the new knowledge. The kangaroo pouch is her security blanket - it 'epitomises security', as Saxby rightly claims (183). He further suggests that it is a 'haven from a hostile world' (183) but here I must disagree with him, since Dot does not seem to find the bush hostile once she has opened her eyes and eaten the berries of understanding. Indeed, it is the memories of the men from the rescue party that haunt her, not the bush. It is those men - from the world outside the bush - who are seen as hostile, not the bush as such.
The first animal helper that Dot encounters in true fairytale manner is Platypus, who not only enlightens her on his own ancient heritage. His abode is also the first example of a locus amoenus in Dot's narrative, a pre-historic, Edenic pleasant place:
It is in this wonderful place - green, fertile, protected, beautiful, and enchanting - that Dot meets Platypus who teaches her about the effects of colonial discourse, in this case on natural history, and white people's presumptuous attitude to the animals of their colonial peripheries: 'Humans at the other end of the world, who, never took the trouble to come here and see me, wrote books about me. Those who did come were more impudent than those who stayed away' (28). Platypus describes forced entry into his locus amoenus, the destruction of both the natural habitat and the animals themselves, all in the name of knowledge. The animal then looks back to 'the good old days before the flood' (33), to a golden era before the arrival of European man and his twisted and perverted ideas of scientific knowledge. Yet at the same time, he also looks forward to a new dawn of enlightenment: 'The age will come when they [that is, humans] will understand, and will cease to write books, and there will be peace for everyone' (29). This message is didactically imparted to Dot and by extension the young reader. The platypus embodies ancient wisdom and true insight, in Pedley's vision of the bush. Again, we may fault Pedley for romanticising the bush. But we may also read the portrayal of Platypus as her way of drawing attention to the lack of true understanding of Australian flora and fauna symptomatic of the new European settlers. By contrasting the peace and beauty of the locus amoenus with the brutality and insensitivity of the intrusive scientific Humans, Pedley directly appeals to the juvenile and adult reader and thus incorporates her initial message of the text's epigraph to the children of Australia, and the world.
Not all the animals Dot encounters on her journey through the bush are as optimistic as Platypus. The Emu, for example, counters the Platypus's hopeful prophecy with a dire warning: 'But the time will come, friend [that is, Dot], when there will be neither Emu nor Kangaroo for Australia 's Arms; no creature will be left to represent the land but the Bunny Rabbit and Sheep' (75). The latter, not being bush creatures but introduced species, are not given a voice in this bushland fantasy, but the reader is encouraged to view them as an undesirable appendage of the insensitive and stupid white humans, who interfere with the indigenous Australian bush and its animals. Furthermore, the rabbit and the sheep are presented as out of place: they do not belong since they do not have the ancient claim to the land that the bush creatures possess.
The search for the way home continues in 'that nice fur bag' (35), the Kangaroo's pouch. En route, the Kangaroo and Dot also witness an Aboriginal ceremonial dance. Dot is frightened by these, in her words, 'dreadful demons', these 'dreadful, horrid creatures' (49). Animal wisdom, however, is again foregrounded in the Kangaroo's concise reply: 'They're just Humans' (49). And Humans we have learned are insensitive and violent, whether they are white or black. Watching the Aboriginal dancing from a distance, however, quietly talking it over with the Kangaroo, Dot experiences an epiphany:
'I wish I were not a white little girl,' she whispered to the Kangaroo (51).
Again, the Kangaroo acts as a dignified and wise guide, a creature that understands both Human and animal mindsets. She explains to Dot:
The dingo, an Australian animal, is clearly on the side of the undesirable elements of the bush; perhaps because it is a predator of kangaroos, or perhaps because it is not sufficiently ancient and properly indigenous. Yet the kangaroo's suggestion that even though it is an enemy, it is a fact of life in the bush. Again, Pedley's message of tolerance, sensitivity and self-improvement is placed in the mouth of an animal that has roamed the earth longer than Humans have, and who may thus be entitled to a kind of superior sagacity.
The Aborigines and their dingoes discover Dot and the Kangaroo, however, and chase them to the edge of an abyss, much as the white people did to the Aboriginal people and dingoes when they first settled in Australia. Clearly Pedley is not idealising the bush, revealing as she does the dangers of bush life, especially when bush creatures come face to face with humans. This marks the nadir of Dot's journey, and the eerie site is presented in the narrative as the opposite of the pleasant place that is the home of the Platypus. Indeed, it is a frightening place that offers no security or protection:
This place is indeed the very opposite of the locus amoenus. It is appropriate in terms of Pedley's reliance on contrasts and oppositions. It is an area of horror, hunting, entrapment and death. There is no security here, no peace or beauty. Dot and the Kangaroo are exposed and vulnerable, and trapped. But the Kangaroo is there to protect Dot, and with a 'superhuman' leap she jumps across the chasm and saves them both.
After this nerve wrecking climax, the narrative ambles 'home'. The journey continues in 'that soft cosy pouch that had been her cradle and carriage for all those days' (92). They are on their way and the helper Willy Wagtail makes them aware that a search party that has been out looking for Dot. Willy Wagtail has heard a piece of gossip from a very nice horse to the effect that 'the trackers and white Humans said it was just as if you [Dot] had disappeared into the sky!' (94). This is the very moment when she climbs into the Kangaroo's pouch - the very moment she was found, as it were, as opposed to lost.
Dot is now ready to go home: she has learned her lessons and become an improved and bush-educated human being. She has met many animals, she has experienced both pleasant and unpleasant places, she has escaped great dangers and she has embraced and imbibed the bush spirit and learning. With the help of the 'berries of understanding' she has been introduced to the ancient and wonderful world of the bush creatures and partaken of their wisdom and knowledge. The intelligence she found in the bush allows her to transcend the inadequacies of the human perspective and she brings it home to share with her father and mother. She returns couched in the pouch. In her quest from innocence to experience, from ignorance to knowledge she has grown up, with her helpers the bush creatures to bring her safely along the slippery path of discovery.
In return for the Kangaroo's kindness, as it were, and quite unexpectedly, the Kangaroo's little Joey, who had also been lost, was in fact also found - by Dot's parents. For the young reader, the very satisfying moment of closure in the story, is when the little Joey, 'with a hop-skip-and-a-jump, . landed itself comfortably in the nice pouch Dot had just vacated' (100).
One thing remains for Dot to do, however, before Pedley can end the little girl's expedition through the bush. Earlier in the narrative Dot had accompanied the Kangaroo to a waterhole, once-upon-a-time a locus amoenus, now destroyed and made unsafe and exposed by Humans:
Dot, the improved human, and her equally improved parents are ready to do the right thing, and reciprocate the bush creature's kindness. They want to give the animals some visible proof of their altered and advanced consciousness. Thus they build a locus amoenus for the Bush animals:
Saxby writes of the ending that as Dot is returned to her family, the young reader's 'need for security and acceptance is met' (539), and security is indeed a central idea in this book. All through her venture in the bush Dot has been secure and she is brought safely home to her parents. She has seen, however, that the animals in the bush have lost or are in the process of losing the security that ensures their survival. Incorporating the topos of the locus amoenus suits both the fairy tale and fantasy elements of the text, as well as the educative plea for the protection of wildlife, since what the animals need is the pleasant place where they have always found security, sustenance and the natural beauty of unspoiled nature. By ending the book with a man-made locus amoenus - in contrast to the natural pleasant places of the story - Pedley also illustrates how the reader might put her improved humanity and ecological consciousness to practical use, and thus begin to end the extinction of the 'beautiful, amiable, and frolicsome creatures of the fair land' of Australia. Perhaps this is what the Platypus means when he says that 'there will be peace for everyone' when scientific humans 'cease to write books' (29) and attempt some practical conservation instead.
Ulla Rahbek teaches English literature at Copenhagen University, Denmark.
1. According to Kim Torney, the search party is a typical feature of the stories of children lost in the bush, and it encapsulates 'the best of Australian society' (2005: 81). This is clearly not how Dot experiences the search party. On the contrary, to her it is remembered in negative terms, encapsulating a loud and scary male world.
2. Pedley's story may be read as a piece of national romanticism on the 1890s. Dot and the Kangaroo shows Pedley's awareness of the necessity of conservation, which began, according to Libby Robin, quite early in the Australian scientific community (Robin 1985: 156.) Robin quotes Ferdinand von Mueller (1879): 'Let us regard the forest as a gift, entrusted to any of us only for transient care to be surrendered to posterity as an unimpaired property, increased in riches and augmented in blessings, to pass as a sacred patrimony from generation to generation' (156). These are - to the modern reader - rather romantic sentiments that Pedley surely would agree with.
Goodwin, Ken. A History of Australian Literature (London: Macmillan, 1986)
Niall, Brenda. 'Children's Literature', in Laurie Hergenhan, ed. New Literary History of Australia (Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin, 1988), pp. 547-59.
Pedley, Ethel C. Dot and the Kangaroo ( Boston, Mass: IndyPublish.com, 2002) [First published London, 1899].
Saxby, H. M. A History of Australian Children's Literature, 1814-1941 (Sydney: Wentworth Books, 1969)
Robin, Libby. 'Visions of Nature: Wild Life, 1938-1954', Victorian Naturalist, Vol. 102, No. 5 (1985): 153-61.
Torney, Kim. Babes in the Bush: The Making of an Australian Image ( Fremantle, WA : Fremantle/Curtin, 2005)
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