The books we read, the stories we tell, the narratives we allow to furnish our inner theatre, can—I believe—form the cosmology of our innermost self. We are a network of stories without beginning or end. We are a mass of tangled, interwoven texts. But there must be some foundation for this creationist tale of ‘I’. There must be, at the beginning, the stories of our childhood: stories that give meaning to all stories that follow.
For me, those stories were The Silver Brumby and its sequels, written by Elyne Mitchell.
As a child growing up on a horse stud in the tame, dusty terrain of Central Queensland, I was entranced by Mitchell’s tales of the Snowy Mountains and their ghost-like brumbies. The horses I knew were brushed, polished, had their markings listed for tracking by the Australian Quarter Horse Association. When the rains came, our horses stood still, their backs to the wind. But Mitchell’s horses ran wild, semi-mythical in their ability to melt into the snow. If challenged they would toss their manes and say things like “I? I am the wind…I come, I pass, and I am gone”.
And like that, they left their hoof prints in my mind.
It probably goes without saying, then, that when I received a phone call saying I’d been short-listed for the Elyne Mitchell Rural Writing Award (Women’s Writing category), I felt I’d finally caught up with my own phantom dream-brumby.
I ummed and ahed about going down to the awards ceremony, held at Corryong, the small Victorian township Mitchell called home. On the one hand was the niggling suspicion they’d included me in the short-list by mistake, or perhaps even out of pity. On the other hand, I’d been given the perfect opportunity to visit a place that had occupied my imagination since I was very young, to pay tribute, in a way, to the narrative that shaped me and my mother before me.
I had $200 to my name when I rented a car in Albury and began my drive along the NSW-Vic border to Corryong. In other words, I knew had little to lose, and a helluva a lot to learn. I drove slowly, watching the Murray Valley Highway unfurl before me. The air grew sweeter throughout the journey, and more than once I veered off into small country roads simply to scramble out into the trees, throw my head back, and breathe in the high-country air. It felt, in an odd way, like a type of homecoming.
As I drove, my thoughts turned to the relationship I had with the Silver Brumby books. I’d grown up reading my mother’s worn paperback copy of The Silver Brumby and The Silver Brumby’s daughter. The rest of the series we borrowed from the mobile library, a caravan filled with books that would roll into our small town fortnightly. I also had the film (taped from TV, with ads for fruit and veg in between the shots of a young Russell Crow), and videos of the animated series (which I never enjoyed as much, but was enough of a fix). It was, of course, the books I liked the most, especially when my mother read them to me. Her voice would be raspy and her eyes tired from a day spent in the paddock. It seems fitting then, that my shortlisted story should be about my mother. Was it, perhaps, not the stories as such I treasured, but what they came to signify between my mother and I? Could this not be said for any story?
The link between relationships and story stayed at the forefront of my mind as I explored Corryong. It’s not difficult—the town and its people, it seems, owe their identity to narrative. There, the legend of the Man from Snowy River is just as real as Jack Riley, who the poem was based on, and whose gravesite is advertised on the town’s street signs. Elyne’s words too seemed omnipresent, a filter through which I viewed the town.
The man at the Visitor Information Centre smiled when I said I was there for the literary awards. Yes, he said, the town loves its stories. Often Elyne would come into the school to talk literature with the children. She was a true countrywoman, a real farmer, he mused. He seemed to attribute her writing to the people and the place itself, and when I thought about it, this rang true, though I am sure the opposite applies as well: At the museum, Elyne’s typewriter is monumentalized in a glass cabinet, and the stories of other locals lined the walls, the history and meaning of the town.
That night, at the awards ceremony, I nervously hung to the wall, reading the bios of other nominated writers. I wondered what stories had brought them to this point in their writing careers, and to Corryong. Some were published, for sale by the door. Others bound into photocopied books. Most were shared through conversation. Elyne’s family and friends gave intimate glimpses into her life. Tim Curnow, her literary agent, spoke of the visceral effect her words had on a reader, and how so much of that came from the local area. Other writers, such as fellow Brisbanite Kerri Harris and winners Isabella McNickle and Shirley Chalmers, gushed about the power of words, and what it means to travel for the sake of words.
I’d planned to tell Elyne’s family just how much her stories meant to me. But when I received my prize from Elyne’s daughter Honor Auchinleck, this suddenly felt unnecessary, and my experience certainly not unique: We were a group of people who, in some way, were all linked through Elyne’s stories, and those stories’ relationships with people and place.
I considered the genealogy, beginning with the folk tales that inspired Elyne. I imagine the groups of stock men and women gathered around camp fires telling yarns about the brumbies. I thought of Elyne herself, huddled over her writing desk, penning stories she originally intended only for her children, but that came to be loved by children across Australia, including my own mother, who in turn shared them with me. We repeat those stories and share new tales. I told a story for my mother, just as Honor wrote about Elyne. A group of complete strangers come together in a small town to share and celebrate the legacy of these stories.
Stories thunder like brumbies. They come, they pass, but they do not go, disappearing into the snow—they stay with you. Or, at least, that’s how I feel. Tennyson wrote, “I am all that I have met”. To that I’d add that maybe we are also all that we have read.
Is it not true that all we have read gives meaning to all we meet, all we experience, and vice versa? Thought of in this way, the stories of our childhood form the ‘I’ as much as our mothers do, and help shape the relationships we have with our mothers and the world.
This then, is my realization, what I gained from my journey to Corryong: I owe everything to stories, the places they come from, and the people who tell them.
As I drove away from Corryong I was overwhelmed by an incredible gratitude for my own constellation of stories, people, and places—my mother, the Silver Brumby, Elyne Mitchell, the Snowy River region— for all they have given me.