There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around That the colt from old Regret had got away...
Jim Craig is eighteen years old, and cannot return to his mountain home until he has proved himself a man.
Jessica Harrison is the beautiful, impetuous daughter of the wealthy cattleman whose £1000 colt runs off to join the brumby mob.
And then there is the stallion, leader of the brumbies for almost twenty years, ranging free and proud in the mountains, whose very existence is like a dark thread running through the lives of so many people…
The Man from Snowy River is an incomparable story of adventure, courage and romance, set in a landscape whose eerie beauty is summoned up with breathtaking clarity by well-known novelist Elyne Mitchell.
The Man from Snowy River by Elyne Mitchell is a novelisation of the Australian film The Man from Snowy River (1982), which in turn, was based on the poem of the same name by Banjo Paterson (1864-1941). Born near Orange in NSW, Paterson grew up in the bush where he developed a lifelong love for horses. After graduating from high school, he trained to become a solicitor but throughout his life also worked as a journalist and war correspondent as well as volunteering for military service. Paterson travelled widely throughout Australia and was particularly known for his sardonic appreciation of the bush and championing of ordinary Australians.
Christened Andrew Barton Paterson, he took the name Banjo from a station racehorse that was owned by his family. Some of his most loved poems include The Man from Snowy River, Clancy of the Overflow, The Man from Ironbark and Mulga Bill’s Bicycle, which I remember performing as a class item in primary school. Paterson’s Collected Verse was first published in 1921, but my edition, pictured above, features illustrations by Norman Lindsay, Hal Gye and Lionel Lindsay that were specially commissioned for a series of pocket editions for Australian soldiers during WWI. You can see copies of some of these illustrations in the background.
Throughout Elyne Mitchell’s novelisation, the wildness of the Snowy Mountains and the brumbies take centre place. Life in the mountains is not for the faint hearted. Mitchell vividly describes a landscape of “mountains and more mountains, crags, rocks piled upon rocks and voids so filled with fog,” where the wind howls and tears and the thunder rolls and crashes. As Jessica discovers, “one minute it’s paradise, the next it’s trying to kill you.”
And Clancy of the Overflow came down to lend a hand No better horseman ever held the reins For never horse could throw him while the saddle girths would stand
Horses were an essential part of life during this era. The loss of a horse left a man “truly undone” and literally legless. The horsemen depended on their steeds not just as a means of transport, but for survival, and Mitchell depicts the close relationship between horse and rider. Clancy of the Overflow – stockman, drover, tracker, legend – is a tough and hardy rider, yet he sits gracefully and relaxed, a part of the rhythm of his horse. Jim Craig, the mountain boy and hero of the story, depends on the sure feet of his mountain pony, Andy, as he plunges over the plateau and down the steep stony slope after the brumbies. It is this ride, terrifying and exciting, and the bringing in of the brumby mob single handedly, that earns Jim the title The Man from Snowy River.
But the man from Snowy River let the pony have his head And he swung his stock whip round and gave a cheer And he raced him down the mountain like a torrent down its bed While the others stood and watched in fear.
I remember seeing the film when it came out many years ago and Jim’s ride is one of those scenes that sticks firmly in the mind. I found it just as exciting in the book as I remembered from the movie, although it is quite possible that I was visualising Tom Burlinson hurtling down that slope. I didn’t remember though, that Paterson himself features in the story. Paterson, dreamer of dreams, composer of bush ballads, myth-maker, recognises the quality in Jim and takes an interest in him, assisting him to gain employment at Harrison’s station. A participant in the chase to retrieve the colt, Paterson absorbs the scene when Jim returns single-handedly with the mob, christening him with the title The Man from Snowy River, suggesting this is the moment where the ballad takes form in Paterson’s mind.
And down by Kosciusko, where the pine-clad ridges raise Their torn and rugged battlements on high... The man from Snowy River is a household word today, And the stockman tell the story of his ride.
A couple of topical issues that would have been current at the end of the 19th century are taken up in both the movie and the book, namely rights for women and land use. Jessica clashes with her father over the appropriate occupation for a lady, believing that women have just as much right to pursue their gifts and talents. Harrison, however, thinks she should be concerning herself with marriage to a decent man and producing grandsons. Harrison also has a grand vision of Australia as the food capital of the world. In his mind, land only has value in terms of what it can produce, not for what it is in its own self – a beautiful and wild diverse natural environment. While Jim sees the beauty of the mountains, Harrison sees the potential for grazing – once all the timber is felled.
The development of natural resources was a hot topic in Australia during the 1880s. Drought was a common experience in colonial Australia. From 1788 to 1860 it has been estimated that Australia experienced up to 27 droughts, but the Federation drought from 1895 – 1903 is considered the worst since the arrival of Europeans. It was during this time that the diversion of water from some of Australia’s major rivers out to parts of NSW and Vic was being seriously considered as a way of trying to drought-proof those areas. But it wasn’t until 1944 that the feasibility of such a scheme was officially investigated. Construction on the Snowy River Scheme began in Oct 1949 and was finally completed in 1974, employing over 100,000 workers, of which many were refugees from war-torn Europe.
The Snowy River Scheme is a hydroelectric and irrigation scheme comprising of 7 power stations, 16 major dams, 80km of aqueducts and 145km of interconnected tunnels that generates power for NSW,Vic & ACT and provides over 2000 gigalitres of water for agriculture. At the time it was planned to divert 99% of the Snowy River’s natural flow. It seems unbelievable to us today that this would have even been considered, however the environmental movement was in its infancy then and the consequences for the ecosystem were not even considered until major environmental problems became evident. A public campaign led to an inquiry in 1998 which recommended increasing the natural flow to 15% and by 2000 Vic & NSW agreed to a long-term target of 28%.
An unforeseen benefit of the Snowy river Scheme was the development of the ski industry. People had been skiing in the Snowy Mountains since the 1860s, but the construction of roads and tracks opened up the mountains to the wider population, including many of the European refugees, who were experienced skiers. Elyne Mitchell (1913-2002) became an experienced and champion skier when she moved to the Snowy Mountains after her marriage.
Mitchell was also a keen horsewoman, authoring the well-known children’s series, The Silver Brumby, which was set in the Snowy Mountains. The landscape, fauna and flora of the mountains feature quite heavily in her work and she also authored a number of non-fiction works about the mountain environment. As well as The Man from Snowy River, Mitchell also wrote the novelisation of the Australian film The Lighthorsemen (1987).
Book Snap Sunday is a weekly book meme hosted by Sharon from Gum Trees and Galaxies. Sharon also hosts the Gaia Reading Challenge to encourage us to read both fiction and nonfiction with an environmental theme.
Paterson, A. B, The Man from Snowy River (1890)