This is a transcription of Episode 36 — Tasmania.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Season four Episode 36 of Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about Tasmania.
Melissa: We have not visited Tasmania.
David: No, it’s far from any place we have visited.
Melissa: I’m just going to go ahead and admit that my only frame of reference for Tasmania was the cartoon character the Tasmanian Devil.
David: Yeah, I didn’t know much about Tasmania prior to doing the research here. Once again we have taken the leap from complete ignorance to wanting to go.
David: This is not sustainable. I’m starting to have ideas about when I get to a significant birthday, going to maybe New Zealand and then take a little trip down to Tasmania and seeing what’s going on there.
Melissa: I am all in on that idea.
David: Do you want to get us started with the 101?
Melissa: I do. Tasmania is a heart-shaped island found 150 miles or 240 kilometers off the southeast corner of Australia.
David: I didn’t realise it was heart shaped.
Melissa: It is.
David: That’s nice.
Melissa: I know. It’s really nice. It’s separated from the mainland by the Bass Strait and is surrounded by its namesake, the Tasman Sea.
David: So that’s apparently a tough sail from Australia down to Tasmania. It doesn’t look so far on the map, but it’s rough seas.
Melissa: Yeah, we’re going to be talking about that quite a bit when we get to my books. Its colonial name was Van Diemen’s Land, not in reference to demons, but in honor of a Dutch colonial governor. And then in 1856, it was named Tasmania to commemorate Abel Tasman, the first European to visit the island. The capital of Tasmania is Hobart. It’s home to Australia’s oldest continuously operating theater and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, which in my imagination is made up of wombats, Tasmanian devils, and wallabies in tiny tuxedos.
David: That would be perfect.
Melissa: I mean, a wombat playing like a timpani or something in his tiny tuxedo?
David: And then the Tasmanian devils getting all upset with each other in the string section.
Melissa: Cymbals. Definitely the cymbals. Hobart was originally founded in 1804 as a penal colony, but another city soon took its place as the number one destination for bad guys. That was Port Arthur.
David: All right.
Melissa: Let’s talk about penal transportation.
David: You make it sound so nice.
Melissa: This was the practice of relocating convicted criminals to somewhere far away to serve out their sentences. This practice was used by France, the Soviet Union, and, of course, our favorite grabby hands, the British Empire. Starting around 1833, Port Arthur was essentially Britain’s version of Alcatraz. The most hardened criminals and repeat offenders. Somewhere between 70 and 80,000 of them were sent to Port Arthur and it was considered to be inescapable. So it definitely has an Alcatraz vibe going on. This is also, for all intents and purposes, the edge of the world. The only thing further south is Antarctica.
David: It’s easy to understand why in 1800, if you thought you never wanted to see someone again, you could send them to Tasmania.
Melissa: The prison closed for good in 1877. Hurrah! It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site, an open air museum. It has guided tours through the building ruins and really beautiful gardens. You can take a harbor cruise to see the island from the water. And there’s a tour of the prison cemetery island nearby.
Melissa: We have one more piece of dark history that must be mentioned before we move on to the fun stuff. When the British colonized the island, the Aboriginal population was between three and 7000. Within 30 years, all of them were wiped out due to infectious diseases and the Black War. If you want to know more about that, you might like the English Passengers by Matthew Neale. This is a historical novel that explores all of that dark stuff through the eyes of a handful of colonists, rogues, and Aboriginal tribe members. It is as entertaining as a story about really sad topics can be. Let’s talk about nice things.
Melissa: There are lots of good things in Tasmania. The number one reason to visit Tasmania is its stunning nature. Much of the island is still densely forested. It has lots and lots of waterfalls and beaches of both the white sand and dramatic rock varieties. There’s something for every type of beachgoer. You can go hiking, kayaking, rafting, snorkeling, and watch the southern lights. I have to note that place names in Tasmania are fantastic.
David: What have you got?
Melissa: There’s the Bay of Fires.
Melissa: This beach is bordered by rusty red rocks. There’s Wine Glass Bay. That’s a sheltered cove. With water so smooth, it looks like a lake.
David: I kind of picturing a lot of yacht rock happening there. [laughter]
Melissa: And speaking of wine glasses and maybe yacht rock: The Tamar Valley wine route in northern Tasmania is dotted with wineries and is the centre for an exploding food scene. I’ll put a link in show notes.
David: They also have a really rich whisky trade going on right now. If I’m recalling this correctly, they didn’t make whisky until about 25 years ago, but then in the last few years, they’ve won some world-level competitions and now there’s a whole tour of whisky distilleries you can enjoy.
Melissa: I mean, this is sounding like a pretty sweet vacation destination. This might make you pause, though. We can’t do the 101 without talking about the Tasmanian devil. [laughter] Tasmanian devils are found in the wild only in Tasmania, and they are the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world. They range in size from 20 to 31 inches, so that’s 50 to 78 centimetres and they weigh from 9 to 26 pounds. Twenty-six pounds is not nothing.
David: It’s not nothing that’s bigger than a large house cat. Yes, smaller than a medium dog. Somewhere in there. Yeah.
Melissa: And they kind of look like bears.
Melissa: So it’s like a tiny little bear that’s the size of a really big cat.
David: Yeah, a tiny bear with a pointy, almost opossum nose. Yeah.
Melissa: Yeah. So they’re really, really cute when their mouths are shut. But look out when they bare their sharp little teeth. Their bite is one of the most powerful on earth. They can exert a force of 94 pounds. I think I read they can bite through steel.
David: Yeah, I’ve definitely heard that they can snap your arm.
David: But I like to think that I would make friends with the Tasmanian devil and he would hiss at everybody else. But he and I would see eye to eye.
Melissa: You would have an understanding.
David: We would have an understanding.
Melissa: Here is where the cartoon adaptation comes from.
David: Which looks nothing like an actual Tasmanian devil.
Melissa: Not at all.
David: The cartoon Tasmanian devil looks more like I don’t even know what that thing looks like
Melissa: For me, it’s like a cross between Magilla Gorilla shrunken down and a bulldog.
David: Bulldog? Yeah. Yeah, I think you’re right.
Melissa: Okay. But the way the Tasmanian devil behaves in the cartoon is based on real life. When threatened, a real Tasmanian devil will lunge at their attacker, howl, shriek and spin around in circles. And when they eat, they eat it all. Hair, bones, organs, everything. There’s a place called the Tasmanian Devil Unzoo where you can go to see these little devils in their natural habitat and perhaps start your lifelong friendship
Melissa: While researching other dangerous animals in Tasmania, I found this list and I just have to share it with you. Poisonous tiger snake, copperhead snake, white lip snakes.
David: Yeah, there are three kinds of snakes in Tasmania, and they’re all poisonous.
Melissa: The redback spider, the blue-ringed octopus, and the box jellyfish. All of those animals were in a list, and behind each one in parentheses it said, deadly.
David: So that list doesn’t even include — there’s an ant in Tasmania that the locals call a jack jumper because it jumps.
David: And if you get on the wrong side of a nest of jack jumpers, they’ll take you out. They’re responsible for something like four deaths in the last ten years.
Melissa: From an ant.
David: From a nest of ants. Yeah, and apparently being bitten by one feels like you’ve been shot.
Melissa: Yeah, that sounds terrible. I’m going to say no to that.
David: Yeah, I’m with you.
Melissa: Okay. Here is the number one thing that made me want to visit Tasmania: Wombats.
Melissa: A.k.a., Little Furry Tank of Love. [laughter] Although not so little. Did you know that wombats are about three feet long? That’s about a meter. And they weigh between 44 and 77 pounds. That’s between 20 and 35 kilograms for a European friends. That is a big, chunky, adorable baby.
David: Yeah, that’s like small child size.
Melissa: But fuzzy.
Melissa: And even though they look kind of chonky and they waddle when they walk, they can run up to 25 miles an hour and maintain that speed for a minute and a half.
Melissa: Like that is longer than a sprint time. Like, a minute and a half is a long time.
David: It’s a long time. What are they running down, I wonder?
Melissa: Pizza? I suspect they’re probably running away from predators.
David: Oh, yeah. Sure, that makes sense.
Melissa: Okay, two other fun facts. Their poop is cube shaped.
David: Yeah, that’s funny.
Melissa: And during the Ice Age, there was a wombat the size of a rhino.
Melissa: I can’t decide if that would be, like, ridiculously cute or really terrifying. If you want to be guaranteed to see a wombat.
David: And I do.
Melissa: You could visit the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary near Hobart. It’s a wildlife rescue where you can visit wombats, Tasmanian devils, koalas, birds, wallabies, and more. You can sign up for a feeding frenzy tour and they take you around and you get to watch them feed the animals.
David: Oh, that’s nice.
Melissa: And then you can determine if the wombats eat pizza.
David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: I doubt it.
David: I’m going to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel doesn’t know which one is the lie. Here are the three statements. So a wallaby you didn’t mention. But they are like a kangaroo. They’re just small. Cut down kangaroo. Wallabies have been known to make crop circles. They get high on opium and bounce around in circles. Two: One of the weirdest and most remarkable museums in the world is in Hobart, Tasmania. Three: A five-year-old boy got lost in Tasmania in 1986. He found his way home 25 years later.
David: Let’s take those in order. Wallabies have been known to make crop circles. They get high on opium and they bounce around in circles.
Melissa: I’m going to say that’s the lie.
David: Really? Of all of them?
David: That is true. [laughing] Tasmania is the world’s largest producer of legally grown opium for the pharmaceutical market.
David: Yeah, we covered the other major opium producer in the world.
Melissa: We did in our Afghanistan episode.
David: In Tasmania, they grow about 50% of the world’s raw material for morphine and other opioids. And apparently, some wallabies can’t resist the midnight oil. The then attorney general, Lara Giddings, said back in 2009, quote, We have a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting as high as a kite, and going around in circles.
Melissa: Oh, poor little wallabies.
David: Then they crash. You see crop circles in the poppy industry from wallabies that are high. I know. We will have a picture of a wallaby created crop circle for you on the site. Second statement: One of the weirdest, most remarkable museums in the world is in Hobart, Tasmania.
Melissa: I mean, obviously that’s got to be true.
David: It’s a subjective call, of course, but also I’m pretty sure. I’m pretty sure. We we need to talk about Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Och or Mona. Everything I’m about to tell you is true, but it sounds like something science fiction author Neal Stephenson would make up.
Melissa: Oh, I can’t wait to hear it.
David: Yeah. So let’s start with David Walsh, the museum’s founder. David Walsh was born in 1961 in Hobart. He is from a working-class neighborhood. He’s good at math. He grows up, he goes to college. He and his college buddies think, you know, We’re good at math. I bet we can beat gambling. [laughter] And they do. They try their hands at blackjack, and they’re okay at that. But they really get wealthy when they develop a system for beating horse racing.
David: Yeah. Walsh makes millions on that.
Melissa: On horse racing.
David: Yep. Specifically electronic horseracing. It’s reported that in 2009, in just two weeks of betting, he and his buddies took home $16 million.
David: And he has been doing that for years.
Melissa: I want to say good for him, but also, I don’t. What an interesting way to make your money.
David: Yeah. So he loves art and he wants to give back and he wants to open a museum.
Melissa: Okay, that’s pretty cool.
David: Yeah. So he did. Back in 2001, he opened a museum of antiquities. Then about five years later, he decided that wasn’t good enough. He tore that place down, and then he spent $75 million to build a complex that would hold $100 million in art. It is the largest privately-funded museum in the Southern Hemisphere. The museum’s intention is to challenge you on what a museum is.
David: So there are no brightly-lit rooms. Instead, you descend into a series of dark subterranean galleries. There’s a maze of stairways. There are no labels on the art.
David: There’s there’s an app that does some guiding. It has different channels that you can tune into. The track that gives you the most traditional information is called Art Wank.
David: Yeah. But there’s another that’s called Media, which is sometimes artist interviews and sometimes music. And there’s a couple other channels that you can switch between. So you and everybody else are going to have a different perspective on the art. They seem to do a lot of special events. Sometimes you can spend the night in the museum. They used to have a naked tour where you’d go through the museum naked.
David: But I couldn’t find that recently. And as you might expect from a museum that’s trying to challenge you, the exhibitions are varied. Some border on traditional. They have a really nice ancient sarcophagus. They’ve got beautiful, fairly standard sculptures and others are less traditional. There’s a mural of a snake that’s made of 1600 smaller paintings.
Melissa: Oh, that’s pretty cool.
David: Yeah. There’s a two-story waterfall that shows you words people are looking up on Google.
David: Yeah. There’s a machine that emulates the human digestive system. It poops every day around 2:00. The museum has a strong theme of sex and death. This is probably not where you want to take the kids. You have been warned. As you can imagine, the reviews of this place are decidedly mixed. They go all the way from ‘absolutely incredible’ to ‘a sickening disgrace’ that should be closed down.[laughter] It is unclear that the negative reviews knew what they were getting into when they went to the museum. The museum also has a bar and a few restaurants. It sponsors festivals twice a year. These celebrations have drawn people like Laurie Anderson and Nick Cave.
Melissa: That sounds about right.
David: The museum also has a sense of humor about itself. I find this really endearing. If you want to find out more about that, head over to the website and take a look. This is a can’t miss place if you’re a certain kind of person. It’s the Mona Museum just outside of Hobart. You look skeptical.
Melissa: I was just thinking about when you described that the art wasn’t labeled. I felt a little challenged by that because I love to go to a museum and read every single word on every single placard, every exhibit, which is why I’m always exhausted when we leave museums. But I love to do that. So I felt kind of challenged by that. And then when you described the art, I was like, Oh yeah, this thing would challenge me in many ways, but it also sounds like a very worthwhile experience.
David: Exactly that. Right. It is intended to be challenging to you. For me, my definition of art has been something that changes the way that you look at something. I was reading about this museum, and I was thinking, this museum is itself a piece of art. It will change the way that you consider museums. And whether or not you go in and you hate it or you go in and you love it, it is still going to make you think the next time you all can do a museum of the frame that you are seeing the work in. And I think that’s amazing.
Melissa: It also seems fitting for a place like Tasmania. Tasmania sounds like it is challenging.
David: Yeah. Last statement: A five year old boy got lost in Tasmania in 1986. He found his way home 25 years later. That’s a lie, but only kind of.
David: Yeah. Saroo Brierley was born in India. His birth name is Sheru Khan. When he was around five, he and his slightly older brother, Guddu, took a train to a nearby city. Just the two of them. They got to the town, but Saroo was exhausted and he collapsed on the platform. In my imagination, Guddu thinks his brother needs some food. So he tells Saroo to wait here and I’ll be back. Saroo wakes up a little while later and he can’t find his brother. He gets impatient and he boards an empty train. Maybe it was the train he was on before, or he thought so. And he falls asleep again. When he wakes up. The train is traveling through an unfamiliar area and he tries to get off at the station, but the door won’t open. I assume the crew was just transporting the train from one station to another. So he’s trapped on the train. Eventually the train stops at Calcutta, which is now Kolkata. The crew lets him out. He doesn’t know where he is. He’s five. He has no money. And he’s 930 miles from home, about 1500 kilometres.
Melissa: Poor little nugget.
David: He knocks around Calcutta for a few weeks. People try to help him, but he can’t describe his hometown well enough. So he’s officially declared a lost child. Then he’s adopted by the Brierley family of Hobart, Tasmania. And then he grows up in Hobart. In 2005, Google Earth was invented. And in about 2008, Saroo wondered if he could use it to help him find his lost home. So over three years, he spends about 10,000 hours looking at Google Earth.
David: He follows railway lines. He pieces together his memories at five with what he’s seeing. Finally, one night in 2011, he sees an image of a fountain near the train tracks where he used to play.
Melissa: Oh my God.
David: From there, he traces his path to his old home. And in 2012, so the next year, he went back to India. To hear him tell the story. he went to his old home. He walked around the corner from his old home. He saw three people standing there and he knew the middle one was his mom.
Melissa: Oh, my God.
David: And she knew he was her son. He wrote a book about that ordeal. It’s called A Long Way Home. In 2016 that was made into the feature film Lion, starring Dev Patel. He also made an ad for Google Earth, and we’ll put links to all of that in the show notes.
Melissa: What a story.
David: Isn’t that amazing? That’s Two Truths and a Lie. Are you ready to talk about books?
Melissa: I am. My first recommendation is Wildlight by Robyn Mundy. This is a coming-of-age novel set in a very special place. It’s an island called Maatsuyker. It’s located about six miles or ten kilometers off the southern coast of Tasmania.
David: Yeah, on the way to the Antarctic.
Melissa: Exactly. It’s about two miles long and one mile wide, 3.5 kilometers by 1.5 kilometers. And it’s home to the southernmost lighthouse in Australia. And here’s a really cool thing. It’s now taken care of by volunteers.
Melissa: This was the last lighthouse to be decommissioned; in 1996, an automated light was installed, but the island still needs caretakers. So every six months, a new set of volunteers takes over.
David: I think we found a new job.
Melissa: right? While they’re on the island, the volunteers tend to the grounds, record wildlife sightings, keep an eye out for fires, and do weather observations twice a day. Because Tasmania is situated in the path of the Roaring Forties.
David: I know about the Roaring Twenties. It seems unlikely that they’re situated in the path of a decade.
Melissa: There are less cocktails in the Roaring Forties. These are very strong winds that blow west to east in the southern hemisphere. They’re usually 15 to 35 knots, which is pretty substantial, but they can gust up to 108.
David: Wow. Okay. So it’s a damp, watery, weather-heavy rock. With a lighthouse on it.
Melissa: There’s an old sailor saying: Below 40 degrees south, there is no law. Below 50 degrees, there is no God. [laughter] It is very windy and unpredictable. The caretakers on the island need to report the height and the direction of the ocean swell. They also measure the temperature and report on the cloud height and cloud cover for aircraft in the area. This is a very elemental, dangerous place.
Melissa: It is also shockingly beautiful. The island itself is very green, and it’s surrounded by dark sapphire blue water. Just off the coast are a cluster of jagged rocky islets called Needle Rocks. It is all very magical looking when the wind isn’t screaming and the sea isn’t trying to kill you. That is the setting for this story. The island and the ocean around it are just as much characters as our heroine, Stephanie. And the weather is almost like a super villain in this story.
David: I would think, yeah.
Melissa: So here’s the setup. 16-year-old Steph has been dragged from Sydney to the island by her parents.
Melissa: Her twin brother recently died and they are all grieving hard.
David: Seems like a really bad place to go if you’re grieving.
Melissa: Well, here’s why they went. Good intentions, bad idea. Steph’s grandfather had been the lighthouse keeper back in the day, so her mom grew up on the island. And her mom is convinced that they can all heal by recreating the nostalgic glow of her childhood.
David: Hmm. Nostalgia is rough on people.
Melissa: As you might imagine, Steph strongly disagrees. And when she arrives on the island — after barfing in the helicopter — she learns that there’s no cell signal, no Internet, and the phone is for emergencies only. She is now physically and digitally isolated, and she is filled with the angst and rage that only a teenage girl can manifest.
David: That’s a bad scene.
Melissa: Then one day, she meets Tom. He’s a 19-year-old deckhand on a crayfishing boat, and he also has his own family problems that loom large in his life. The two of them start a friendship that turns into a first love situation. And after a few weeks, Steph begins to soften a little bit toward the island. And there’s this line from the book that I loved: ‘For every stretch of howling wind and rain, Maatsuyker delivered a day of perfect weather, a reward that could lull you into thinking this place was special, something you might not easily forget.’
Melissa: So they’re getting to know each other. They only see each other sporadically because he’s out on the boat and she’s on the island. And then Big Life Stuff happens that upends everybody’s situation. But I can’t tell you what it is. You have to read the book to find out.
Melissa: Here’s why I love this book. It explores YA-ish themes like young love, parents who don’t understand you, the rage of being a teenager, the agony of homework, all of that.
David: All the emotions.
Melissa: Yes. But it also delves into the aftereffects of tragedy and how healing actually happens after the bottom falls out of your life. This is not a YA book, even though our heroine is a teenager. The author, Robyn Mundy, is an adventurer. She volunteered on Maatsuyker island for four months.
Melissa: And she has spent both summers and winters in Antarctica. Every year she works on a ship that sails to polar seas. And all of that shows in her writing. Her sensory descriptions of the plants and animals could only come from seeing them firsthand. And she weaves them into the plot in a meaningful way. So it’s not just, like, descriptive paragraphs tacked on. The animals, the wind, the sea play a pivotal role in the story. And the weather is ever-present. There are epic storms, including one that almost sinks Tom’s boat; that scene was great. You can feel the wind. You can hear the seals barking offshore. This book fully captures the experience of chucking your everyday life to go somewhere that is truly otherworldly. That’s Wildlight by Robyn Mundy, and I will put amazing videos and photos of the island in show notes along with the application link in case anyone wants to try being the caretaker.
David: My first book is Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger.
Melissa: Oh good. I’m glad we’re going to talk about the Tasmanian tiger.
David: . The book is by Margaret Mittlebach, Michael Crewdson, and illustrated Alexis Rockman. So let’s start with the Tasmanian tiger. Once upon a time there was a marsupial that looks something like a large cat and a fox and a wolf all put together. If you saw it at night, you’d think maybe it was one of those things. But also, no. The tiger was striped and it had dark stripes against a yellow brown coat. It carried its young in its pouch and it could open its jaw really far. Like when you see it, you think that can’t be right. The Tasmanian tiger is the size of maybe a mid-sized dog, but it looks like it can carry a watermelon around in its mouth.
David: Yeah, just big jaw drop. And our Tigers, also called thylacines, wandered around Australia and Tasmania for maybe 2 million years. They co-existed with Indigenous Tasmanians for a long, long time. We talked a little bit about Europeans coming to Tasmania. The Europeans opened the colony in 1803. Eventually they brought sheep with them. Then in 1817, not long after a thylacine killed a sheep.
Melissa: Of course it did.
David: Right. And that’s about when it started looking bad for the thylacines. In 1830, Van Diemen’s Land Company lost a lot of sheep. They had lousy weather and disease, but also some of them were killed by local animals. And if you can’t make decent money when you’re using prison labor, you’re doing something really wrong.
David: So they started offering a bounty on the Tigers. By 1888, they were offering a pound per dead adult tiger. The Tigers were wiped out. The last known wild thylacine was killed in 1930. The last caged thylacine died on September 7th, 1936, at a poorly kept zoo in Hobart.
David: Yeah, less than 100 years ago. We have black and white films of Tasmanian tigers. That’s how close they are to us. But the end story is that Tasmanian Tigers survived the Australian wilderness for 2 million years, then 133 years after they met Europeans, they were all dead. Or are they? So every year there are people who swear they’ve seen a thylacine running across a road or walking up a mountain or cutting through their backyard.
Melissa: I love this.
David: There have been over 400 investigated sightings since 1930 and some of those people have credentials. Researchers and park rangers and the like, people who are risking their credibility by saying, I saw a tiger. There’s a stuffed Tasmanian tiger in Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History, and that’s where this book starts. Two science nerds are sitting in front of a stuffed thylacine. How do I know they’re science nerds? Because one of them founded the Secret Science Club in Brooklyn 15 years ago.
Melissa: That is adorable.
David: Yeah. The site says: Underground, shrouded in mystery, chock full of brainiacs.
Melissa: I love it.
David: Yeah. They have monthly or so meetings, and we’ll put a link in the show notes. So these two brainiacs are standing there and they say, let’s go find one. Let’s go find a thylacine. They talk an artist friend of theirs into it. And then chapter two, they’re in Sydney, bound for the Tasmanian outback. Now, I don’t want to spoil the book for you, but if they had found a thylacine, you probably would have heard about it by now. Still, this is a great travelogue. They go all over Tasmania looking for tigers. They encounter all kinds of nature — beasts I’d never heard of. They speak to a whole bunch of interesting tiger-related people. There’s a team of people who are trying to clone a thylacine. There are scientists and rangers and kryptozoologists. The artist that they took is Alexis Rockman. He’s an illustrator and an artist and his work is seen throughout the book. He does the work here in authentic media. So for instance, he’s made a paint out of beetles and wombat fecal matter.
Melissa: Square fecal matter.
David: Yeah. He’s a bit of an agent of chaos throughout this book. [laughter] His illustrations are lovely once you get past the whole fecal matter thing and he’s really good with stopping motion, so freezing a bat in mid-air or a wombat as he’s galloping around, that kind of thing. Here’s an important thing to mention about the writing: The book is written in first person plural. So we’re putting on our boots. We’re going outside. This did two things for me. First, it sort of framed it as a group adventure. It kept bringing me back to, like, the journals of Lewis and Clark kind of thing for me. And second, it made me feel like I was part of the adventure doing this thing right. I realized that it won’t have this effect on everyone. For some, it’s going to sound like the Queen is speaking. Some of the reviews I read had a particular problem with the text in the book, we dreamed. But I found it inviting and charming. Ultimately, this book left me with some hope and a strong, Yeah, maybe. Maybe there’s a super sneaky Tiger family hiding in the hills and, you know, go little thylacines, but also hurray for impulsive, science-oriented people. I could use a lot more of that in my life. I love the idea that they were like, Let’s go find one. And they tried. Yeah, I just thought this was a very charming book. It’s _Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger by Margaret Middlebrook, Michael Crewdson, and Alexis Rockman, illustrator.
Melissa: That sounds awesome. Aw, thylacine.
David: I know.
Melissa: My second recommendation is The Survivors by Jane Harper. When I was researching books for this episode, I came across a review from Anne Bogel. Our friend and the host of the What Should I Read Next podcast. This is what she said about the survivors: ‘I think I have a new favorite Jane Harper book, edging out The Dry, which has held the honor since I first read it in 2017.’ So based on that, I knew I had to read it, and I’m glad I did. This is a tense mystery story set in the fictional town of Evelyn Bay on the coast of Tasmania. To the people who vacation there, it’s an idyllic seaside tourist destination. There’s a beautiful beach. You can go scuba diving and a nearby shipwreck. It’s exactly what you want for your summer vacay.
Melissa: But for the local population of just 900 souls, Evelyn Bay is their home. It’s also poisoned with guilt and grudges and suspicion.
Melissa: But that’s all under the surface, like an undertow in the ocean.
David: Oh, it was a nice little summer town two sentences ago.
Melissa: Well, here’s the deal.
Melissa: Twelve years ago, there was an epic storm. Physically, the town took a beating, but emotionally it was even worse because on that fateful, stormy day, several tragedies struck the town.
Melissa: I don’t want to elaborate, because the way Jane Harper unspools the story is excellent. But suffice it to say that not everyone was found when the sky and sea finally quieted down. And everyone in the town is affected by it because they’re all tangled up together in this tight-knit community.
Melissa: In the years since, most people stayed and just swept their feelings under the rug. But Kieran, the protagonist of the story, took off as soon as he was old enough to make his own decisions. And now a more mature man, he is back to help his mom pack up their family home and move his father, who has dementia, into a nursing home. This is not a good time for their family. And then a body is discovered on the beach. Memories are excavated, secrets are revealed. Long overdue conversations finally take place with devastating results.
Melissa: The people who populate this story are great and not great in that they’re awesome people, but great in that they feel so real. They are bad at talking about important things.
Melissa: They lose their tempers when they shouldn’t. They turn off their vulnerability just when they should be opening up. The thing that really struck me about the dialogue is that it felt like the way real people talk to each other. These were not neat, tidy conversations where the plot got moved ahead by someone saying exactly the right thing. But what I really want to talk about is how guilt is a resident of this town. Everyone is carrying an impossible burden from the day of the storm. And it’s colored everything that has happened to them since. And it’s the catalyst for the new problems that are haunting the town.
Melissa: None of this action could take place without the setting. From the first few pages, you will know this beach town. You can smell the sea air. You can hear the waves crashing on the beach. There’s a restaurant called the Surf and Turf where everyone goes for fish platters and to drink beer and listen to the jukebox. And there are sea caves that are central to the plot. Phew, are they vivid in my mind. The caves are both irresistible and very dangerous because at low tide, you can just walk in the door of the cave and meander through the tunnels inside.
Melissa: Teenagers go there to have parties and make out. Smoke cigarettes, drink.
David: Do teenager stuff.
Melissa: Do teenagers stuff. But when the tide comes in, the caves flood and there is no way to get out. You can’t even see the entrance anymore.
David: It seems dangerous.
Melissa: You can see where this is going.
David: It’s Chekhov’s gun all over again.
Melissa: It’s to Jane Harper’s credit that I was Googling like mad while I read this book.
David: I love that when that happens, right. You get so interested in something, you’re like, Oh, I need to know everything there is to know about this right now.
Melissa: In addition to the caves in the book, there is a sculpture of three life-sized humans rising up out of the sea at the site of a shipwreck. The descriptions are so vivid, I was sure that they were real, and I wanted to read the history of this sculpture. They are not real.
David: It’s a lie.
Melissa: It’s a beautiful lie. Although there are more than 1000 shipwrecks in the waters around Tasmania, the sculpture is not real. Jane Harper said in an interview that she likes to create landmarks specifically for her books. What a trickster! This is a gripping, well-constructed mystery. The pages just flew by while I was reading it, but I feel like the suspense story is used as a decoy for the real story. The real story is an exploration of grief and guilt and how a place can be haunted by collective memory. I feel like that shows up in a lot of books about small towns. And this one is particularly interesting because of this seaside setting. It felt really fresh and new to me.
Melissa: And somehow Jane Harper does all of this without it being uncomfortably grim. I would say this was a fun read, even though a lot of things that happen are very sad. If you want to take a vicarious trip to the rugged, wild Tasmanian coast, this is a powerful way to do it. That’s The Survivors by Jane Harper.
David: My next book is Ten Rogues: The Unlikely Story of Convict Schemers, a Stolen Brig and an Escape from Van Diemen’s Land to Chile by Peter Grose.
Melissa: I love that title so much.
David: This is a non-fiction story about ten guys who are sentenced to penal colonies in Tasmania, but not just any penal colony. These guys are on Sarah Island. This was a particularly unpleasant place to be in the mid 1800s. Eventually they cleared out Sarah Island and moved everybody to Port Arthur.
Melissa: To the kinder, gentler prison?
David: I don’t think so. Sarah Island is an island in the harbor of the west side of Tasmania. If you get off the island and pass the sharks, maybe you make it to the shore. But then on one side you’ve got thousands of miles of ocean and the vicious wind that comes with it, and on the other, an impenetrable rainforest. Something will probably eat you there by morning.
Melissa: Maybe a thylacine.
David: Maybe a thylacine. Even today, that area is uninhabited. It’s an enormous nature reserve. And the prison colony is run by just an all-star team of sadists.
Melissa: Well, that’s terrible. Yeah, but of course.
David: Lashes were routinely handed out, usually 50 at a time. They would sometimes give you a break. They would lash you 50 times on Monday, wait a week, and then lash you another 50 times.
Melissa: That seems worse. You would just be starting to heal.
David: That’s the point.
Melissa: That’s disgusting.
David: Yeah. The prisoners —
Melissa: I just want to get a bag of Tasmanian devils and throw them at the warden.
David: Yeah. Oh, we’re doing good. The prisoners are on the island to make ships, so the wood in the rainforest is amazing for ships. And at that time, ships are the key to military supremacy. One day in January of 1834, these ten prisoners take advantage of some business that’s going on with the colony, and they steal an unfinished ship.
Melissa: Very exciting.
David: Yeah, they managed to do that without spilling a drop of blood. And then they sail from Sarah Island around Tasmania, across the Pacific Ocean to the coast of Chile.
David: That’s about 6700 miles or almost 11,000 kilometres. That’s New York to L.A. and back again and then some. Or Moscow to Paris twice. They did that without a map.
Melissa: Oh, my goodness.
David: Or without much food.
Melissa: And there’s only ten of them, right. on the ship? Doesn’t it take more than ten hands to run a ship of that size? OK.
David: And the boat was leaky because it wasn’t finished yet. So two guys are always down in the hole baling out the ship.
Melissa: Wow. That sounds like a really unfun job.
David: Yeah, they used a navigation method called Dead Reckoning. That’s where you think, Well, we were going this fast and we were headed in this direction, so we’re probably here. Other people would call it guessing.
Melissa: Informed guessing. [laughint]
David: Yeah. Yeah. The voyage is one of the greatest desperation plays of all time. That they didn’t vanish into the sea on day four is amazing. That they ended up sailing for six weeks until they found Chile is just what?! The author, Peter Grose, made the good choice to center of the story on one of the rogues. So he sort of picked a hero. This guy’s name is Jimmy Porter. Here’s the first paragraph of the book:
It’s hard to know whether to like or dislike Jimmy Porter. He was, by his own account, a killer and a thief. He was also a deserting husband and father and a tireless schemer and con man. His real persona bears a fair resemblance to one of those enduring heroes of popular fiction, the loveable rogue. He was a self pitying liar, but then his survival more than once depended on his being economical with the truth. And if his survival led to a few clamorous bouts of self-promotion and fact-twisting, well, what are loveable rogues for?
David: Part of the book, and maybe the main story here, is deciding where you personally come down with Jimmy. On one hand, he does some truly terrible things, and on the other, he also faces death maybe a dozen times and somehow walks away. He’s sentenced to hang five times through the course of this book, and he also wrote two books about his life.
David: Which were mostly a bag of lies. But still! One of the fun things about this book is that the author quotes Jimmy — his books — and then breaks down why Jimmy couldn’t possibly have been telling the truth. The book also gives you a good look at the British Correctional System of the 1800s.
Melissa: I’m going to guess that is not very nice.
David: Oh, no. The author frames something in a way that I don’t remember seeing anywhere else, and maybe it’s because I wasn’t paying attention at the time. It was the idea that in that period the British had convinced themselves that there were four classes. There’s an upper class, the middle or a merchant class, and a lower class, and a criminal class. Those were all ordained by God.
Melissa: Not moving up a level?
David: No. Because God, he quotes a 19th century hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful, which there are some lovely versions of. But it had a verse that’s not usually sung these days. But back then they rang out with: The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate. Which brings us to that criminal class, right? The English seem to be of the opinion that if we could just get rid of those guys, we’d all be better off. And that started with an aggressive death penalty. At the time, there were 200 offenses that resulted in hanging. Yikes. Ranging from murder to cutting down the wrong tree. And when that got to be a bit much, they came up with the idea of transporting criminals to the United States. And when the Americans got all uppity, there’s Australia.
Melissa: All the way down there at the edge of the world.
David: We’ll never see those guys again. This book is just a ripping yarn with some history to think about. Thrown in for good measure, it’s Ten Rogues: The Unlikely Story of Convict Schemers, a Stolen Brig and an Escape from Van Diemen’s Land to Chile by Peter Grose.
Melissa: My final recommendation is Flames by Robbie Arnott, and I almost did not read this book. I have to thank our listener Andrea R from Melbourne for urging me to read it.
David: Oh, a local!
Melissa: I had initially considered it, but the flap copy just sounded like a big nothing to me.
David: Oh, okay.
Melissa: So I moved on to other titles, but after I got Andrea’s email, I decided to give it a go, and I’m thrilled that I did. This book is amazing. So never judge a book by its flap copy, I guess.
Melissa: Having said all of that, I’m not sure how to describe this book. So can I just say I loved it and you should read it and let it go at that?
David: You could help us a little bit. Is it fiction?
Melissa: If I was writing the flap copy, this is what I would say.
Melissa: This is a magical realism road trip story set in modern Tasmania.
David: Oh, all right.
Melissa: The story is epistolary. So there’s a diary and an exchange of letters between two characters. One chapter is from a fictional, chatty tell-all novel. At one point, the story is told by a personification of fire.
Melissa: Another chapter is told from the point of view of a water rat who may or may not be a god.
Melissa: Yeah. There’s a life changing friendship between a fisherman and a seal. There’s a female detective who narrates her own chapter with the tone of our hardboiled noir crime story.
David: And all of this is one story.
Melissa: This is all one story.
Melissa: Yes, there are gorgeous, vivid descriptions of scenery and weather, all of which make the setting come to life as a character. Another character.
Melissa: But they’re also a metaphor for the emotions of the characters. And if all of this sounds too heady and literary, I understand why you might think that. But I’m going to tell you, it is very readable. And sometimes those kinds of literary tricks kind of engage your mind, but don’t bring your heart into the equation.
Melissa: I was deeply engaged with the characters. This is amazing because it is kind of bananas.
Melissa: But I was invested in what was going to happen to these characters. So let’s talk about them for a minute. Even though there’s a web of people and animals and anthropomorphized fire telling this story, there are two characters at its heart: a brother and sister named Levi and Charlotte McCallister. This is the story of their family and how the two of them need to spend some time apart to find their way back together. I want to read you some of the first page so you can get a sense of the writing and how the book kicks off. Because right away, you know, you’re in for something unusual:
Our mother returned to us two days after we spread her ashes over Notley Fern Gorge. She was definitely our mother — but, at the same time, she was not our mother at all. Since her dispersal among the fronds of Notley, she had changed. Now her skin was carpeted by spongy, verdant moss and thin tendrils of common filmy fern. Six large fronds of tree fern had sprouted from her back and extended past her waist in a layered peacock tail of vegetation. This kind of thing wasn’t uncommon in our family. Our grandmother had reappeared a few days after her ashes were scattered into the north-facing strait at Hawley Beach… Our great-aunt Margaret had also returned, not long after her ashes had been poured over the family farm down at Bothwell. When she’d wandered back into her living room… an ornate crown of bluegum branches burst from her head and the furred tail of a Bennett’s wallaby flopped out from beneath her dress.
Melissa: So that’s Levi narrating.
Melissa: And he goes on to describe more female relatives who returned after being cremated. After his mom’s return, he decides that the best way to protect his little sister, Charlotte, is to build her a sturdy coffin so that when she dies, she’ll stay dead. But Charlotte is only 23, and when she figures out what Levi is doing, she hits the road. She decides she has got to get out of this family house.
David: So she thinks that he’s building a coffin, not strictly for utility purposes, but to end her life.
Melissa: That seems to be what she thinks in the beginning. But then she kind of gets a better grasp on the situation because he is in no way threatening her. He thinks this is a way to really care for her.
David: Yeah, but it would be spooky to walk into a room and have somebody making your coffin.
Melissa: Completely. So she hits the road and thus begins her adventures in Tasmania and we get to go along for the ride. She visits beaches. She works for a while on a wombat farm. She climbs the snowy peaks of Cradle Mountain and goes to just so many other places in nature. You could use this novel as a tour guide to scenic spots to visit in Tasmania. I was also Googling the heck out of this book. All of these places are real. As Charlotte and Levi travel their separate paths, they both meet really interesting people, and they find a way through their grief to better versions of themselves. So it’s a very rich coming-of-age story told in a highly unconventional way.
David: So the other unusual characters that come up in this book interact with a brother and sister somehow.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s a web of characters. And by the end, you understand why you’ve been introduced to all of these other people.
Melissa: Which is why I reminded me a little bit of Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. It sort of has a dreamy quality about it. This author, Robbie Arnott, plants seeds early in the story that come to fruition later in the book, in the same way that in Station Eleven connections between people emerge as you move through the story.
Melissa: The thing that I really was struck by is that every detail he includes and every line of dialogue has a reason for being there, although you might not really understand what it is at the time that you’re reading it. This book made me whoop with delight a few times, which is one of my favorite reading experiences. And when I finished the last page, I immediately Voxed a friend and said, You need to get your hands on this book right now. If you want to read something like nothing you’ve ever read before and get a very strong sense of traveling around Tasmania, this is the one. It’s Flames by Robbie Arnott.
David: Those are five books we love set in Tasmania. For more information, visit our site at strongsenseofplace.com.
Melissa: Once again, the show notes are going to be packed with eye-popping photos and amazing videos. The thylacine, Maatsuyker Island, the application to be a lighthouse caretaker. I mean, it’s a treasure trove.
David: Wallaby crop circles. I mean, you probably didn’t even know wallaby crop circles existed 40 minutes ago, and now you’ve got to see one, right?
David: Mel, can you tell us where we’re going on our next episode?
Melissa: By very popular demand from our patrons, we’re heading to the mountains of Appalachia.
David: We’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Benny Marty/Shutterstock.
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