Christine Cheater reviews Peter Pierce, Country of Lost Children



Peter Pierce, The Country of Lost Children: an Australian Anxiety, Oakleigh, Cambridge University Press, 1999, , pp xviii + 211, illustrations and index, ISBN 0 521 594490 5 (hardcover), ISBN 0 521 59499 5 (paperback), ARP $24.95 (paperback), $90 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Christine Cheater.

Peter Pierce’s The Country of Lost Children is one of a growing number of inter-disciplinary books that explores an aspect of the Australian consciousness through an examination of a cultural idiom. As its title suggests The Country of Lost Children traces the representations of lost children in Australian literature, art and the cinema. Pierce focuses on two periods: – the second half of the nineteenth century, when the recurring motif was the search for bush-lost child, and the second half of the twentieth century, when the narratives revolved around the issue of the abandoned child. However, the underlying consideration of the Pierce’s book is written into its subtitle, an Australian Anxiety. Pierce is concerned with what the image of the lost child reveals about Australian feelings of insecurity. Australians, Pierce claims, are a people persistently fearful of where they are lodged in place and time.

The first section of the book, ‘Discovering the Lost Child’, is a widely researched account of the historical development of the many stories told and retold about lost children. In these stories the lost children were boys and girls who strayed into the bush and were taken by the land. Often the Australian Aborigines feature in these stories as black trackers – the means through which the European settlers recovered their children from the land, alive or dead. Images of these lost children appeared in many forms including illustrated news reports, novels, poems, paintings, bush fairytales and pantomime. Using twelve case studies including McCubbin’s paintings and five actual incidents of ‘bush-lost’ children, Pierce analyses the embellishments that were added to the story of the lost child during the later half of the nineteenth century.

Stories of ‘bush-lost’ children could have three endings; the children were found alive, the children were found dead or, most disturbing, the children were never found. Pierce shows how these stories were imbued with meaning and often reinforced social stratification. The children themselves were passive victims. If they were saved, it was through divine intervention and the actions of their rescuers; – men, not women, and black trackers acting under the orders of prominent worthy citizens. If the children died or were never found they were victims of the romantic lure of the Australian bush and life on the margins of European settlement. Their fate stood as a warning. Given the convention in Victorian literature of using the child to symbolise the future, Pierce argues that these early lost child accounts reveal a profound unease about the European presence in Australia.

In these early stories the bush lures the children but never plays an active role in their destruction. The bush may be the culprit but the child’s fate is in the hands of the gods, a trope missing in later lost child narratives. Twentieth century treatments of the lost child story move the setting from the bush to the city where human desires decide the fate of the children. In these treatments children are deliberately lost by the parental generation. Children are aborted, abandoned, murdered or never conceived. The stories focus, not on the uniting of a community in the search for the lost child, but on the rendering of a community as it deals with the problem of the abandoned child.

In the second section of his book, ‘The Child Abandoned’, Pierce assembles a variety of accounts of children being lost through human agency and divides them generically into theatre, novel, film and true story narratives. In these narratives children grow up in a world where men, women and social institutions, either through neglect or by deliberate intention, seem to be dedicated to their ruin. In life the children are prey to serial killers, religious sects and parental abuse. In death they are fodder for the sensationalising of communal fears. As with the bush-lost child, the abandoned child symbolises adult fears of the self and of the future. Pierce suggests that the lost child re-emerges in twentieth century literature as the focus of further and more obscure anxieties. Characters question whether their children have a future in Australia, often asking if succeeding generations of Australians should be brought into being at all. For Pierce such comments signify a fear of the coming society and resemble a cultural death wish.

To back this claim Pierce examines the works of ten Australian authors and six filmmakers, and details the reporting of various child abductions and murders. One of the more interesting of these studies is Pierce’s analysis of the Azaria Chamberlain affair. After examining the incident and its transformation into print and onto film, Pierce concludes that the Chamberlain’s claim that a dingo took their baby was doomed because their story was not congruent with the tales of the lost child. In nineteenth century literature the bush never actively destroyed the child, and in twentieth century literature the child was lost through human agency. The Chamberlain affair is a stunning example of how a cultural mythology can affect social behaviour. Unfortunately Piece did not continue this type of analysis with his other true stories. Instead these are tacked onto the end of the book giving the impression they are an after-thought. Their inclusion appears to be an attempt to popularise the book by commenting on current affairs, rather then forming an integral part of Pierce’s argument, which they most certainly do.

This quibble aside, The Country of Lost Children is a worthy addition to the field of Australian cultural studies. Not only does Pierce investigate an overlooked aspect of Australian folklore, he also throws fresh light onto the wider issue of how Australians view their time and place in the world. If the literature of the lost child is anything to go by then the answer must be – not very well at all.

Christine Cheater works as a consulting historian on the NSW Central Coast