Song of Australia
by Stephen Crabbe
The historical fiction novel, Song of Australia, is comprised of three inter-related stories: "Magpies and Mendelssohn", "Song of Australia", and "The Parade". Author and fellow Australian, Stephen Crabbe, joins me today to share an excerpt from the book.
Song of Australia puts the reader in the shoes of remarkable characters confronting the difficult life of the home-front during the First World War.
German-Australians are the largest minority group in the nation as it joins the rest of the British Empire to fight against Germany. How are they to deal with the sudden hostility of their neighbours and the Government? Amid immense suffering caused by conflicting adults, how can gifted child-musicians help the world? An adolescent boy in Adelaide, "City of Churches" , believes Christianity is a way of peace. How can he worship with people who believe God wants him to fight - and perhaps die - in war, for the sake of the British Empire? And what will be the fate of his love for one of these people?
Exploring timeless themes, Stephen Crabbe’s three connected stories bring to life the state of South Australia in the first years of Federation.
Excerpt from "Magpies and Mendelssohn"
[The story is set in South Australia during the First World War.]
It was only twenty minutes after leaving Miss Hale that Elsie walked into the school with Neddy’s hand quite happily in hers. They approached Miss Black and Neddy promised he would come to school next day. Elsie led him homeward.
A few people standing outside the post office ceased their chatter to glare at them as they passed. ‘Germans shouldn’t be wandering around the town at will,’ one said to another loud enough for Elsie to hear. ‘Especially in the company of a cabbage-head!’
A woman took the cue. ‘Torrens Island’s the place for them!’
Elsie held Neddy’s hand tighter and quickened her pace until his mother, with a grateful smile at her, ushered him into her house.
How the boy had agreed to go to school next day and sing some songs with her, and how she would be his tutor, and how she would then use these songs to help him learn to read, and how very important this was according to Miss Hale—all of this she wanted her mother to understand. But the fury that descended on her as she entered the house would not let her begin to speak of these things. To her mother, the fact she had come home an hour after school dismissal was all that mattered.
The grip on her arm was savage. ‘You wander off to satisfy your own selfish whims while I sit here watching the clock, not knowing where you are or what you’re doing … The older you get the more irresponsible you become!’
‘I was talking to Neddy Hawkins! He ran off from school again and I … ’
Her mother gasped, horror all over her face for several seconds. She slammed her hand on the table. Plates and cutlery rattled. ‘You were with that Hawkins woman’s little brat? You have no shame, girl! Get into your room and stay there!’
No point persevering with an explanation. She pursed her lips and strode away. It had been like this all her life.
Mother’s fierce resentment now had an excuse to explode. Elsie winced as the voice struck from behind.
‘The way you’re going, girl, you’ll fall as low as that woman!’
Later that night Elsie’s father, face sad and shoulders drooping, came to tell her she was to be confined to her room except to go to school. ‘I’m very sorry. I’ll persuade your mother to relent eventually, but while she’s this angry it’s best not to make her worse. I don’t want to put too much of a strain on her heart …’ His voice petered out and, with a shrug, he left the room.
The restriction on her movement was bad enough, but not being able to play the piano was utter exile. Elsie endured the next three days, downcast one moment and angry the next. In the bleakest moments it was as though a huge dark mouth was trying to gulp her down. It was not a new experience, and she knew her escape was through music. She sat with hands arched on the dressing table and heard Schumann’s Traumerei emerge from her fingers as they played an invisible keyboard. Like a ladder of sound it allowed her to claw her way back to the light.
Elsie remembered the day seven years earlier when her hands first touched a piano. That moment followed a fierce storm of argument in the house. Mother’s hands squeezed her tiny arms. Father told her to let go. ‘She must be allowed to develop the talent she was born with! I’m taking her, Elisabeth.’ Somehow he managed to get Elsie out of the house and take her down the street to Mrs Pascoe.
She could not recall a time when Mother encouraged her to leave the house. Sweeping, dusting, washing, helping in the kitchen—the household jobs never ended. Her two brothers, on the other hand, were given a free rein to play sport, visit their mates and roam the town whenever they were not in school. Elsie’s school friends gave up inviting her to their birthday parties. Her mother’s eyes even watched from the gate as she walked to Mrs Pascoe’s house once a week, to see that she went nowhere else. And at the time the lesson was due to finish those same eyes would be watching again to ensure she came straight home.
Again and again over the years that big dark mouth threatened. Her chest would tighten. It was hard to breathe. Yet that piano, as unmoving and dependable as a boulder amid the swirl of hopelessness, was always there waiting for her fingers to grab hold. Her music was her lifeline.
Praise for the Book
"A Song Without Words, music unmarred by propaganda, soars higher. This was just one of the fascinating themes that touched me as I read Song of Australia by Stephen Crabbe. For me, the setting of this story is unique. I've not read before a WWI story set entirely at the home-front, depicting an impending storm of conflict within a community. The story is relevant in its capturing the suddenness of change, the surge of intolerance. In this case we feel conflict born from prejudice against German-Australians and lovers of peace. It is told through a number of characters. I thought the author did a brilliant job when taking us within the point of view of a young special needs boy who excelled musically, let alone through Elsie, Will Krause and Edwin - all interesting characters. Threats of mob action, bullies, budding human relationships, religious hypocrisy and local color all make for a compelling and rich read." ~ John B. Campbell
"Stephen Crabbe's book is a delight to read with character development and depth. The historical aspect is real and the characters come alive and in so doing bring to life the sub-text. These South Australian stories are set against a background of the First World War and reactions to war, relationship, race, fear, hope and the future. And it is through the telling of these stories that the reader can also connect personally as well as relating to the contemporary Australian experience. Well crafted and well worth a read." ~ Paul Vincent Cannon
"I kinda got involved in the story and the characters. Happened to like the third part of the book that has got a heartfelt emotional bond relating to the characters. Of all, music essence as the medium of story surely makes its mark. Thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and worth adding to your collection." ~ Euphonos
"Using the language of music to convey some of his most lyrical passages, Crabbe guides readers through a story that matures, much like its characters, who themselves act almost as part of an opera, engaging us in the history of a young nation seeking its identity." ~ Lisl Zlitni
"Song of Australia is a book which pulls forth memories and gives a fascinating view into the past. The story takes the reader through a range of emotions with hope blooming in the background. The characters are very real, the settings quite vivid, and the atmosphere nostalgic for the good within people in spite of the bad. I highly recommend this story for anyone looking for a truly enjoyable trip into the last century." ~ Mary R. Fairchild
About the Author
Stephen Crabbe was born in Adelaide, South Australia. His ancestors were among the earliest colonists.
Stephen's twin passions from the earliest years were music and language in all its forms. He studied classical pianoforte from the age of five and read widely in English literature. He also loved to explore all other languages.
Stephen took up education as a profession, which took him into both public and private schools in several different roles. Eventually he chose to be a music educator, a vocation he followed for several decades.
Writing was always a compulsion for Stephen, but in later years it drew more attention. Screen productions used his scripts and many of his articles were published online and in print. The main focus of his writing now is fiction, especially of the historical kind.
He lives in the rural south-west of Australia.