The Dig Tree (Sarah Murgatroyd, 2000)

This is the book I’ve been intending to read ever since it was recommended to me by DOELD after I read, and raved about, The Supply Party by Martin Edmonds (see post below).

Where that book was about a particular, largely forgotten part of the famously ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition, this is basically the ultimate history of the entire thing.

A sadder, stranger tale it would be difficult to come across.

Sarah Murgatroyd has a peculiar sympathy for the peculiar character of Burke, a man so spectacularly unsuited to the role of outback explorer – as she details – it is hard to believe she speaks the truth.

But she does, and the book’s precise detail and fat bibliography attest to Murgatroyd’s painstaking and extensive research.

Despite this, it has the nail-biting, absorbing qualities of a suspense novel, once you are firmly into it.

It is a testament to her humanity and obvious affinity with the tale that she manages to humanise the – frankly, horrible-sounding – Robert O’Hara Burke.

I was as profoundly affected by this book as I was by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a revolutionary kind of journalism, and Peter Carey’s historiographic metafiction (sorry, university moment) True History of the Kelly Gang.

The latter is a novel, but one rooted in fact and with its style drawn directly from Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter.

It is worth noting such similarities between these works, all incredibly memorable, disturbing and suberbly crafted, and between the feelings they have the power to create in the reader.

I needed a good hour staring quietly into space after turning the final page.

I will be entreating everybody I know to try this book. Stick with it and you will soon be unable to tear yourself away.

My only regret is that I didn’t read it the first time I was told to.

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