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Discovering Her Australian Song

LONG before Colleen McCulloch's superseller book and miniseries "The Thorn Birds" romanticized life on an Australian sheep ranch, the outback - with its exotic flora and fauna, its vast uncharted territories, and rambunctious, pioneering characters - had been a favored setting for writers. It continues to be a place where any combination of mystery, adventure, romance, and conflict works marvelously."Songlines," the last work of anthropologist Bruce Chatwin, focused on a profoundly different aspect of Australian life - the richness and originality of Aboriginal culture, lore, and religion. In her new novel, "The Dreaming," Barbara Wood seeks to meld these two Australias into a confluent whole. In 1871, Joanna Drury travels from India to Australia searching for the explanation of her mother's death and her legacy of nightmares about a rainbow serpent and savage dogs. For clues, she has only her grandfather's diary, written in an unbreakable code, a water-stained deed of land, and her mother's journal. Early on, she meets and marries Hugh Westbrook - a poet sheep rancher - and befriends Sarah, a half-Aboriginal girl. From Sarah she learns of songlines and that the rainbow serpent of her dreams is a most feared Aboriginal god about whom it is taboo to speak. But while "The Dreaming" has all the ingredients for the perfect midsummer night's read, it doesn't come together until the final 75 pages. This is so for a variety of reasons. Initially, Wood notes little difference between goodness and dullness. In her dictionary, they are synonyms. Joanna is the summation of all Christian virtues. Husband Hugh is equally saintly. Their children are without blemish. Such goodness should prove endearing, but it doesn't because the characters lack humanity. They never cross the barrier from paper to reality. They're about as interesting as Styrofoam. Then, too, Wood takes so long to move her tale from the initial paper investigation to the actual search for what happened that all but the most tolerant or devoted reader may wander off - in mind, if not in body - before the action starts. But this is counterbalanced by the fascinating glimpses that the novel - through the character Sarah - offers of the Aboriginal vision of the past and how the past is transmitted to children. To the Aborgines, to sing is to live. They believe the world was sung into existence: The gods sang the mountains, the seas, the earth, and the rivers into being. According to Wood, the story of each individual's life is his or her songline and it is through our songs that our mothers gave themselves to us and we show ourselves to our children. In searching for her grandparents' and mother's past involvement with the Aborigines, Joanna traces their songlines and creates her own. Though "The Dreaming" is thin on historical accuracy, plot, and character, though it lacks any real Australian flavor, it nudges readers toward the appreciation of a culture about which many people know little. The few passages outlining the early governmental policies toward the Aborigines are often reminiscent of the United States' treatment of native Americans and, thus, frightening for their intolerance. Reading this story left me determined to keep singing to my children.

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