Book Review – The Bushman Who Came Back (Bony Buys A Woman) – Arthur W Upfield

Posted on Thu 04/21/2011 by


THE BUSHMAN WHO CAME BACK (Also published under the title Bony Buys A Woman)

First published – (U.S.) Doubleday – 1957

Second Publisher – (UK) Heinemann – 1957 (under the title Bony Buys A Woman)

Third Publisher – (UK) Pan Books (In association with Heinemann)  – 1959

This Edition – Pan Books – Sixth Printing – 1975

The next few books were published under different titles by different publishers, and this could be a pointer even to the genesis of Political Correctness even back to the time of those original publishings. I might suggest Upfield would have gone with the second title, that of Bony Buys A Woman, because in the text, this actually does happen. However, Doubledays in the U.S. may have preferred a title that was not perceived as having the connotations of that original title, hence the more bland title of that U.S. publication. Again, the title I have reflects the TV series where the letter ‘E’ was added to Bony.

This novel is set around a homestead along the edge of Lake Eyre. There is a murder of the cook housekeeper, and the abduction of her daughter.

The case seems pretty cut and dried, as an old itinerant trapper has gone missing, and all signs point to his having committed the crime, as his tracks were seen at the scene of where the body was found.

In this book, we find an actual specific mention of a date when, before her murder, the mother asks little Linda the date, and she replies with the exact date, that being February 7th, 1957.

The police are dumbfounded as they cannot track the old man, whose nickname is Ole Fren Yorky, a name given him by an old Lubra he was friendly with, and the name stuck. (Here, the word lubra is a term used at the time to describe a married aboriginal woman)

The aborigines in the area are not helping as much as they can, for their own reasons, and all roads lead to dead ends.

Bony arrives from a recently concluded case in Boulia in Queensland, by horse, much to the astonishment of the property owner, who cannot believe that he is an Inspector of Police.

The aborigines however, all seem to know he has arrived, where he has come from, and just who exactly he is, this being explained by Upfield in his narrative as an aboriginal form of mental telepathy, which is probably how it might have been perceived at that time.

The station owner asks him if he saw anything of the Queensland floods, a reference here to the dramatic and major flooding of 1956 that covered most areas of Eastern Australia at different times during that year. Bony mentions that the floods might actually reach Lake Eyre by downflow from the Cooper Creek, and that this might be on the way.

There is an evocative description of a tribal gathering early in the book that gives Bony some clues as to what actually happened.

He sneaks into the area where the aborigines are all seated around a small fire. His approach is no mean feat, as the aborigines instinctively know when someone enters their camp. He leans up against a tree, and just listens. Canute, the head man of this group is seated before the fire and is telling stories with the aid of his dijeridoo. This is explained away, if it can be described as such, by the fact that the playing of the tribal instrument tends to hypnotise the audience, and they believe their own version of the story, because at the end of the story, they all seem to come to, as if being held in a trance.

The stories are old tribal legends, and new stories that the chief wants to implant in the audience.

This seems to effectively explain how these ancient tribal stories could be handed down through the ages.

Bony seems to have his own sort of translation of the stories, and these are quite close to this tribe’s stories. The way Upfield explains this phenomenon has a distinct ring of accuracy about it.

After the story, the chief puts aside the dijeridoo, and rolls a smoke, as if he is the only one not to fall under the influence of the playing, while all the others seem to be gradually awakening and drifting away.

Bony himself rolls a smoke, and pulling out from behind the tree, strikes a match to light the smoke, this making the tribal audience aware of his presence, shocked and absolutely dumbfounded that he could make such an approach without immediate detection.

Bony then saunters to the fire and sits, cross legged, on the other side of this little fire, immediately opposite the chief and the tribal elders. He smokes his smoke, and then rolls and smokes another before anything else happens, leading us to believe that these people have all the time in the world.

He then identifies himself as a tribal member of the Worcair people, mentioning Illawalli, his tribal standing, and his stature in that people’s country. Bony strips off his shirt to display his markings as a high member of the Worcair people, and Old Canute asks to feel these markings, as his eyesight is failing, and he can detect Bony’s standing by just feeling these markings and scars.

Canute then proceeds to lie to Bony, who, having listened to the tale of the dijeridoo, knows that Canute is lying.

Bony then stuns them with his own form of aboriginal knowledge when he tells them that he knows how they were in contact with the Boulia people, the name of their medicine man, and just what was talked about in that conversation, held over thousands of miles without any aids known to modern man, also mentioning the dreaded Kurdaitcha man.

Bony mentions his son in passing. He now has graduated from University and is a doctor missioner on a mission in Queensland, so here we see that Bony’s reference to his family is now substantially more than a son at university, Upfield possibly becoming aware that some of his readers might have cottoned onto the fact that Charles has been at University for an awfully long time.

There is another description of how clever the aborigines are, with a description of when Bony is being tracked by Charlie, one of Canute’s aborigines. Charlie is running along after Bony, but all Bony can see is a willi willi, which is a circular wind storm that has sucked sand into its vortex. When the wind drops and the sand from the willi willi disperses, Bony sees that Charlie has been running within the willi willi to avoid detection.

There is also a description of how the aborigines communicate with the use of smoke signals, what these smoke signals mean and their translation.

Bony has plaster casts of the footprints allegedly left by Yorky, and he makes tracks using these plaster casts. He then uses these tracks to find which of the local men accurately describe them as being made by Yorky.

He then also tests them on the aborigines, and they are dumbfounded, because they seem to know exactly where Yorky is, with little Linda, the kidnapped girl, and it would be impossible for Yorky to be in two places at one time, leading Bony to believe that Yorky is a fair distance from where they all are, at the homestead on the shores of Lake Eyre.

Bony blackmails the local tribe by mentioning that he knows the whereabouts of their magic stones and their tribal treasures, and that if they do not assist him, he will find their treasures and dispose of them. This immediately gets the attention of Canute, who then instructs Charlie to assist Bony.

The title of the novel gets its name from a little story that, on the surface, might only seem to be a byline of the main story. Young Meena, who is the daughter of the black cook Sarah, Yorky being the father, has been promised to old Canute, as is the aboriginal custom. This means that she is effectively off limits to all other males, be they white, or most importantly, if they are black. This hamstrings all the young males of the tribe, mostly Charlie, who is infatuated with the delicious Meena, who returns his favours, but is well aware of the rules. Bony blackmails Canute, and buys Meena for himself with a copious amount of tobacco, which the old chief mainly chews on, as opposed to actually smoking the stuff.

Evidently, Yorky is hiding out on an island in the middle of Lake Eyre.

Now here, Upfield describes that even though Lake Eyre is dry lake, and it would be easy just to walk out onto the lake across to this island, this is not as easy a task as it at first sounds. Just below the seemingly hard surface of the lake is a constant layer of mud, and this would swallow up anyone walking on it as quickly as if they were caught in quicksand. There are tracks out to this island, and these are semi defined as dingo tracks. Evidently, the dingos follow these pads, no wider than inches in places out to the island in the middle of the lake, in search of fresh water and rabbits, which are also quite prevalent out on this island. These pads, constantly walked upon by the wild dogs, are harder than the surrounding surface, and Bony uses these pads to make his way out to where Yorky is.

Along the way, there are wider bands of hard claypan, where Bony can rest. The trip takes two days, as Lake Eyre is no small lake, and the distance to be covered is in the region of twenty miles or so, the going slow as Bony has to wear specially constructed shoes along the lines of snowshoes to make the going a little easier by spreading the weight over a larger area. He has to shuffle along.

The danger is further compounded by the fact that Bony knows who the murderer really is, and here, he is caught between a rock and a hard place.

Yorky thinks that the Police are after him, and that he is quite willing to shoot it out because he thinks that if caught, he would surely hang.

Bony is further hamstrung with the knowledge that the real killer is quite willing to shoot Yorky to protect his frame, killing Yorky perceived as being no more than killing a dirty rotten murderer, and possible child killer.

There is also the chance that the real killer will shoot Bony, also to protect his frame, having some sort of idea that Bony is on to him.

Here, Upfield uses his knowledge of firearms to clever advantage. He knows that Yorky has a point 44 Winchester rifle. There is a choice of rifles back at the homestead, the choice being that of a point 44 Winchester, and a point 25 Savage. Bony selects the Savage, and here, he  explains why he made this choice.

The Savage has a better range, the shells being a lot smaller and weighing less, hence the greater accuracy over a greater distance. By selecting the Savage, he can stand off further if Yorky wishes to shoot it out. Also, by selecting the Savage, that also leaves the only available rifle for the real killer to use being the Winchester, effectively leaving Bony with the same advantage if the real killer wishes to shoot it out.

This knowledge of firearms and the shells is also used in the forensic examination at the start of the case.

The trip across the lake to where Yorky and Linda are hidden, and the trip back are beautifully described and covers about forty pages of the story, so the conditions are intricately explained.

There is a fairly large island in the middle of the lake where the two are hiding out, and the aborigines have been keeping up the food stocks to the missing man and the little girl, the pair having ready access to fresh water from their little beach. Yorky has constructed a form of shelter for them, and they are living in relative comfort.

The trip back is fraught with danger on three counts, the first being that the real killer has the drop on them and is out to protect himself by killing Bony, and having the high ground on the shoreline of the lake with the sun behind him, Bony having to concentrate on the pad he is following, and therefore at a decided disadvantage.

The only thing that is in his favour is the greater range and velocity of the Savage over the Winchester used by the killer.

The second source of danger is that Meena has followed Bony out onto the lake, explaining this with the fact that she now belongs to Bony, and is only seeing that he comes to no danger, another reason being that she knows Yorky is her father, and she wants to see that no harm comes to him also.

Where this most hamstrings Bony is that he now has Meena, Yorky, and Linda to get off the lake, across the tiny pad, this task also consuming two days.

What further exacerbates the situation is that the flood is approaching, and the lake is filling with water, this water being under the surface of the lake, causing the muddy surface to slop around, threatening to suck them off the pad.

The scene is set for a showdown when the killer pins Bony down. He can’t go forward as he is just out of range of the Winchester, the sun is going down, and the lake is filling, Yorky, Meena, and Linda being behind him. Fortuitously, young Charlie saves the day by sneaking up on the killer on the shore behind a sandhill and hitting him on the head with a rock.

All is saved, and as a final gesture, Bony gives Meena to Charlie in recognition of saving his life, and everybody lives happily ever after.

At another of the homesteads, Bony is again mistaken for an Inspector, not of the Police, but as an Inspector of rabbits.

Another evocatively told story, this is without doubt one of Upfield’s best novels, especially his translation of aboriginal knowledge into an immensely readable form.