The Historical Context of Arthur W. Upfield's Bony Novels

Andrew Milnor, Glenn Bartle Professor of Social Theory, State University of New York at Binghamton

Sands was not the first Bony, but rather Barakee, whose American title was Lure of the Bush, in which Bony has some racial stuff thrown at him, as he does in several other novels. In one a Ms Breen clearly dislikes and distrusts him for his background.

Upfield is writing at a very difficult time for Australia. Bony appears between two massacres of Aboriginals, at Forrest River and North Arnheim Land in the late 1920s and in the same place, 1934, resulting in a very famous disappearance and subsequent documentary. Was Australia ready for a "Bony"? I doubt it, as his lagging sales to this day suggest, although Elizabeth's second-hand books tells me they no long shelve his books, but "just put them on the counter and they are gone", as one clerk told me.

The real racial attitude of Upfield is expressed in his non-fiction writing, where he argues that the Aboriginal is probably superior to the European — in one he points to a drunken English immigrant stumbling down the street and Bony observes that is the all-too-typical European immigrant to Australia, echoing the early chapters of Landor's Bushman (1847). Upfield is here too close to the "noble savage" for comfort, since he says take away the discrimination and the Aboriginal would be equal to or better than the European; it took, he says, the European 100 generations to produce a university professor, while the Aboriginals could do it in a few, if given the chance; over and over he talks about discrimination, but, unfortunately, that material is found in his various unpublished autobiographies (at least five) and his non-fiction newspaper articles although on occasion Bony speaks to the subject.

At the end of the day, Upfield presents an entriely different problem. He states clearly — many, many times — that he is just a story teller and that his characters are real — "eighty percent of what I write is true, twenty percent fictional" and that is a quotation — and must act like the characters he has met on his walks through the Outback (which he did for perhaps ten years as a "swaggie"). And that includes language and attitudes. Indeed, a tragic figure is the real individual he bases Bony upon, a bi-racial who ultimately disappears back to the tribe since he cannot be accepted by the "white" world in spite of considerable talent, a good basic mission education, and extensive reading (at one point he says that the "Tracker" quoted Nietszche). So, is a writer to write in his time and for his time, or outside of time — and if he does what is his relation to truth at the primary level? To context? He tussled with this, but never openly; in any public arena he would simply say that he was only a "storyteller" who hoped that his reader would end his book with a little more understanding than when he started.


Upfield, Arthur W. Body at Madmen's bend. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1963.

Upfield, Arthur W. Sands of Windee. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1958.

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Arthur W. Upfield