‘At first glance, nothing moves. It is hard to believe that anything could live in this harsh place.’ In exploring Australia’s desert, Narelle Oliver follows the path of Charles Sturt’s expedition in 1844, aiming to discover an inland sea. Like many early explorers he failed to recognise the diversity of what lay beneath the soil and instead regarded the landscape as hostile and arid. The book highlights fossil evidence, and also acknowledges the intimate knowledge of this terrain possessed by the First Nations peoples who inhabited the desert. Excerpts from Sturt’s journal at the base of each spread, hand drawn images of the explorers, and early maps of the terrain, are in stark contrast to the magnificent linocut images above them depicting the rich desert ecosystem.
First Nations knowledge imbues the narrative which contains Indigenous Australian names (in three languages) for some animals, and a final image of a First Nations person observing the expedition, suggesting that he could read and identify animal tracks, where the members of Sturt’s party could not. These tracks are subtly depicted on the yellow endpapers and are reminiscent of images contained in the celebrated artwork of First Nations peoples.
The inventive layout features small square captioned linocut illustrations of a variety of creatures, and inset linocut scenes with alphabetical keys to the names of animals depicted. The front cover contains a dramatic image of a small marsupial tunnelling underground, unaware of a lizard predator close behind, depicted on the back cover. The reader is introduced to insects, lizards, marsupials and plants such as spinifex and mulga. Oliver’s use of linocut technique progressed from her early works, in which single linocuts adorned a page, to a far more complex rendering employing a combination of techniques. Here she has used coloured pencils and pencil rubbings to colour her prints.
Metaphors of the sea are used to dramatic and potent effect in this poetic text: ‘There are huge waves, not of water, but of fiery red sand. There are lakes of glittering salt and rivers of cracking clay.’ This literary device is also an ironic commentary on a search for an ‘inland sea.’ The book examines a unique ecosystem combining natural history with historical research in an extremely original way and contains a useful bibliography and index of animals. Her work aimed to inform as it entertained, and this brilliant text is one of the impressive body of treasured works which Narelle Oliver (1960–2016) bequeathed to her many readers.
1999 Winner Whitley Awards – Best Children’s Book – Older Children
2000 Joint winner The Wilderness Society Environment Award for Children’s Literature – Picture Book
2000 Shortlisted CBCA Book of the Year Awards- Eve Pownall Award for Information Books
Series title: Walker Classic Series