Interesting premise: After a small-plane crash in the Australian bush, the pilot and co-pilot die leaving only the passengers: a boy, Peter, age 9 and his sister Mary, age 14. After witnessing the death of both adults, eating the only food they have (a barley sugar stick), and drinking from a gully, they decide they must head for their original destination, Adelaide, where an uncle lives. Soon they realize that it's a lot further than they thought and that they have no idea how to survive. Enter an Aboriginal boy to help them.
I won't say more about the plot as part of the charm of the book for me was reading it without having any idea what it was about. I'd never heard of it. And thankfully, I'd never seen the radically different, violent movie made from it in the 1970s. That sounds dreadful.
The story had great flow and I read it in a little less than two hours, anxious to know how the sense of foreboding was going to resolve. The descriptions of the flora and fauna of the Australia wilds were full of wonder and magic and made me wish to see such places, although they've never been on my list of desired destinations before. The dialog and relationship between the siblings seemed realistic and I liked how the characters changed over the short span of time. I think it's a book that will stick with me.
Many people have commented on the dated aspects of the book. I didn't mind that. It was written in 1959, just before the height of civil rights in the US. Peter and Mary are from South Carolina and therefore steeped in racism and fear of black people, no matter where they're from. Throughout the book, Peter calls the Aboriginal boy "darkie," while Mary calls him nothing and is terrified of him. When he touches her, all she can think about is how at home, he would be lynched for such a thing. Okay, yes, uncomfortable but probably pretty accurate for the time. The author presents a pretty simplistic situation of white "civilized" folk meet black "noble savage" in order to get his point across about the pros and cons of both stereotypes and both cultures. I would say he errs a little on the side of depicting the Aboriginal boy as one-dimensionally noble. It was hard to relate to him as a real person. Peter and Mary have more realistic flaws.
In any era, Mary is a bit hard to take. I gather this book is aimed at teens and it's too bad Mary is a weak and annoying "model" for girls. Had I read this as a kid, I would have identified more with Peter. I understand that Mary is 14 and that is a time when you're struggling between being a "grown-up" and reverting to more child-like play and needs. She feels responsible for Peter and yet she wishes she could cut loose a little more and dance and giggle with Peter and the Aborigine. Instead, she pretty much sticks to being self-righteous, afraid, and separate. The whole book seems like an exercise in stripping her of an power and showing how "weak" women are. Still, in the end, Mary does grow a little.