Book Review – Bushranger Of The Skies – Arthur W Upfield

Posted on Sat 11/20/2010 by



First published – (Australia) Angus and Robertson – 1940

Second Publisher – (U.S.) Doubleday – 1944 (Under the title ‘No Footprints In The Bush’)

Third Publisher – (UK) British Book Centre – 1963

This Edition    Arkon (A subsidiary of Angus & Robertson) – 1972 (Red cover book)

The word ‘Bushranger’ in the title here refers to a uniquely Australian term. In the UK the term might be referred to as ‘Highwayman’, and in the U.S. as an ‘Outlaw’ as you may remember them from those old cowboy TV shows. The term was adopted in the very early days of settlement here in Australia, where these criminals operated outside the law, and in fact roamed areas of the vast Australian Countryside, referred to as ‘the Bush’ hence the term ‘Bushranger’.

What is becoming quite noticeable as we move through these Bony novels in the order they were written is that Upfield is including more and more of aboriginal culture into them. However, this has to be done in the context of a fiction novel, so he cannot just stop in the narrative to explain some of the detail of that aboriginal culture. In a way, he cannot even include it as part of a ‘notes’ section at the front or the end of the novel, because in that way, context is lost, or clues are alluded to, and here again, you also need to realise that these novels were published, some more than 60 to 80 years ago, when something of this nature was not even considered to be needing of an explanation. Upfield just mentioned it in his novels as part of the narrative, adding something seemingly mysterious to the narrative. probably because of that, and now after all those decades different connotations are put onto what he has written, effectively giving the idea that he has in fact been taken completely out of context. In nearly every case, he has treated these cultural matters with respect. In some cases he may have cast a different context onto it, but when viewed as a whole, this was done for a specific reason. Another author writing something of a similar nature would have treated it entirely differently, and Upfield shows his considerable knowledge at every turn.

Such is the case with this novel, where Upfield specifically introduces some elements into the narrative that are quite specific by their nature, offers no explanatory reasons as to why, and leaves the reader somewhat puzzled, thus perpetrating some of those incorrect connotations later attributed to Upfield.

This story is set on the other side of the Queensland border, in the Northern Territory, as Bony has a letter from the Queensland police to the chief of the South Australia police, who at that time had jurisdiction in the Northern Territory.

As he is on his way to meet the local policeman, he is bombed from an aeroplane, and then the local policeman is bombed and killed, whilst driving towards the oasis where Bony is sheltering. The bomb dropped on Bony was only upon speculation, as the pilot did not know that Bony was hiding in this little oasis, waiting to be picked up by the local policeman.

At the site of the wreckage of the Police vehicle sent to pick him up, Bony is met by a full blood aboriginal chief, and in the process of identification, he shows this chief his cicatrices and tribal identification, mentioning Illawalli, whom this chief also knows.

These very detailed body markings will get some fairly comprehensive explanation in my notes at a later stage.

There is a descriptive passage early in the story of a battle between the two opposing tribes, which although mentioned here, was in fact something quite rare. Bony relishes in the chance to let go of his white heritage and fight like a black man.

There are two tribes in this book. One tribe is of good people, and the second tribe is of bad people. The story concerns a half caste who has delusions of his own power and wishes to take over a large property from his father who is a white man, the half caste being his son from a previous coupling with a full blooded aboriginal woman. This son has been very well educated and raised to take over his father’s huge property, but he goes awry, having delusions of his own grandeur in the vast scheme of things. He intends to take over his father’s property by force, before it actually is time for it to come to him. He insinuates himself into a small local tribe, already compromised by the assimilation that is slowly creeping in, and from this base, he seeks to further impose his will in a misguided effort to take over the whole of Australia. Having now taken his willing tribe in the direction of his planning, he is threatening everyone in the district with dire consequences if they try to capture him, which so far has proved to be a task impossible for the local Police presence to do, hence Bony has been called in.

Bony works in the full knowledge that all persons know he is with the police. This time, he also has to work within a tight time constraint, as the this son gone bad has decreed a certain time limit for his demands to be met.

Captain Loveacre from earlier Bony novels is called in to help, and with the help of the Queensland police, he obtains a big gun that can be, and is, mounted onto one of his larger aircraft.

The local doctor also flies his own aircraft, and Bony hopes to use his craft to help find the hideaway of this madman, but during this act, this plane is destroyed. The white daughter of the property owner, a half sister to the madman, is kidnapped to further the ends of the villain.

During this kidnapping, there is a very descriptive passage as Bony and the ‘good guys’ chase the villain on horseback. They almost catch them as the villain and the girl transfer to his aircraft, but they eventually escape, the aborigines chasing the aircraft on foot and horseback.

Bony, with the help of the local aboriginal chief he met at the start of the novel, (who was also raised and educated by the station owner as being his son, along with the son gone bad, and his white daughter) finds the hideout of the madman, but is captured, in a moment of physical weakness, after having been bitten by a snake. It looks grim for Bony, but he eventually escapes, with the daughter and is pursued by the ‘bad’ aborigines. Hampered by the effects of the snake bite, and with the young woman with him, he cannot outpace the people chasing him.

With the young woman, he takes refuge in their sacred ground, thus unable to be captured when the pursuers catch up with them, absolutely fearful to enter this sacred site. Bony and the girl shelter there in full view of the aborigines, patently incapable of being able to do anything about the situation.

Again, this sounds like mumbo jumbo, and could be placed down to author’s licence, because it is something actually difficult to believe. While being chased by this group of bad aborigines, he shelters in a patch of land of the local tribe of the ‘good guys’ have as their private area. These are now termed as ‘Sacred Sites’. Every tribe had one, and the area was well delineated. The only people allowed inside that whole area were the initiated men of that one tribe. When boys reached a certain age where they could become men, and assist with the hunter gatherer tasks of that tribe, they were taken here for the first time and an initiation rite was carried out to make them a full tribal man. Even then, they were only allowed to enter this area for special occasions, and only accompanied by all the tribal men. Older men not able to carry out the tasks of the younger men were the respected elders and mentors for the younger initiated men and also for uninitiated boys in training. Entry to these areas was quite rare indeed. It is also where the tribal men met for important matters, and where the senior elders, the head man, and the tribal shaman would keep their secret things they used for their ceremonies. It was also the place where the elders of the tribes were taken after they died, thus adding to the mystique of this area, and also for the respect with which that special area was held.

So, in the full knowledge of all this, Bony and the young white woman who has no knowledge whatsoever of these things, and in an act of desperation only for Bony, they then seek refuge in this area, full in the absolute knowledge that even under this chase sequence, then the respect for that area, even, and most especially for another tribe, then the bad guys just cannot enter that land no matter what, such is the mystique that patch of land holds. So, while Bony and the woman remain in full view of the chasing bad guys, they are at a stalemate, knowing that there is nothing they can do, under fear of certain death, no matter what, if they enter that land, not only from the other tribe, but also under threat of death from their own tribal elders for desecrating another tribe’s secret place, just by entering that area. Bony understands this, and in desperation uses the area as a safe place to stay while help comes. The opposing chasing bad guys know they have been outwitted, and effectively with nothing they can do, all that is left for them to do is to withdraw before ‘the cavalry’ arrives to rescue Bony and the young woman. As you can see from this explanation, Upfield as the author cannot stop the narrative and offer an explanation as to why this seemingly unbelievable occurrence effectively defuses the situation of imminent danger.

Here, in this novel, Upfield makes his first mention of the ‘Kurdaitcha Man’ per se, this alluding to the use of the blood and feathers method of foot covering to evade detection from persons trying to track them.

Again this is another aspect of aboriginal culture shrouded in mystery. The ‘Kurdaitcha Man’ is the mythical name given to what was perceived as being a phantom, but in actual fact was a form of spying. Only specially selected tribal men specially trained in this method of avoiding detection would take on the persona of the Kurdaitcha Man. He would be effectively disguised as to be all but invisible in any situation, day or night, be unseen and unheard. Aborigines, both women, and especially men, know all the aspects of living in the bush, and because of that know exactly what it is they are looking at on the ground in the form of tracks, be they of any animal, or of men, and in nearly every case, they even know the individual person who made those tracks. The Kurdaitcha Man left no tracks whatsoever. Prior to setting out on his ‘spying’ mission, he would cover his feet with wet animal blood and then carefully cover them with feathers which would adhere to the blood, a careful task indeed because none of the feathers could ever get to the stage where they fell off, leaving a telltale track that might be followed. Large feathers mainly from the large Australian flightless bird, the Emu were used, and the covering was really thick and really tightly bound so none would come adrift during this task. This effectively covered any tracks they might leave, and specially trained for the task, there were never any tracks whatsoever to be able to be noticed, let alone followed. Because these spying missions often resulted in detailed foreknowledge, the people being spied against realised that intelligence had been gathered without their knowledge, hence this phantom was always only known as the Kurdaitcha Man, known of, but never detected. Not every tribe had one, because the training was intense, and because it was only used for specific reasons, then it was an added duty for one person to undertake the intensive learning process, in addition to his other tribal duties, so, because it was a rare thing, this then added a certain mystique to man, always referred to only by the dreaded title of Kurdaitcha Man, and because of the aura surrounding that title, this was always something to be feared

Bony himself has the occasion in some of his later investigations to use this method of moving around undetected to gather information and intelligence. Himself a fully initiated tribal man of his own tribe, Bony is trained in all these things, and is fully aware of the importance, both of the entry to secret tribal ground I mentioned above, and also of the mystique and dread felt by all aborigines to this Kurdaitcha Man. Bony uses this ‘blood and feathers’ method of moving undetected, and also uses blood and lambswool. He also uses those boots of distinctly Australian origin, now called the ‘Ugg boot’, a version of foot covering made from sheep leather, however with the leather on the inside and the wool covering on the outside. Also, on a later occasion, he employs hessian bound loosely around his feet for the same purpose.

The novel winds up in the last few exciting pages as the situation resolves, and there is a special moment where time is taken by the older man who has now effectively lost his Son, and Upfield treats this with delicacy and tenderness not shown in his previous novels.

This is another of Upfield’s novels where he seeks to point in some way towards the huge and insurmountable differences between the white and the black ways of life, and how there is just no in between. He graphically explains that the two ways of life are incontrovertibly spanned by a vast gulf that is unable to be bridged. In doing so, Upfield effectively disparages his own character, Bony, always seeking to show that Bony’s education has given him the best of both worlds, having been shown the ways and culture of the aborigines by his personal mentor, the old Illawalli. Upfield constantly has Bony warring with himself in his own mind, Bony always having doubts as to when the time will come when he completely reverts to the ways of his black heritage. He always strives to complete cases that no other person will take, as these are seen to be unsolvable, and the exercise for Bony is to constantly use his brain to solve these impossibilities, knowing that if he fails at one case, then he fails as a man, and in failure, he will then revert to his black heritage.

A novel that is seemingly straight forward on the surface as a crime mystery evolves into a complex thing where Upfield seeks to detail aboriginal culture without actually making it obvious. This is indeed where Upfield excelled.