I Can Jump Puddles by Alan Marshall was mandatory reading in Primary School for Australians of my age. As a child I loved to read, and read everything I could get my hands on, from old Reader’s Digests to Nana’s hospital romances from the 1960’s (imagine cover art of dark haired, strong jawed doctors and pretty nurses looking adoringly up at them – I suspect no one realised I was reading these) to Dad’s cowboy paperbacks (Pretty sure no one knew I was reading these either!), but for reasons I cannot remember, I truly hated I Can Jump Puddles. However, I recently found a copy in an op shop and decided to give the story another try. This time I loved it.
First, a disclaimer. I usually review novels, but I Can Jump Puddles is the (mostly) true story of the author’s childhood in Western Victoria during the early part of the twentieth century. The area where the author grew up is close to where I grew up, (actually it is 100 kilometres away, but in the country that is nothing). Plus, an old man living near to us, who was an eccentric and reclusive alcoholic who my father kept an eye on, was the son of one of the doctors who treated this author as a child. This connection made Alan Marshall and his story part of our local history.
As an adult reading I Can Jump Puddles, I found the descriptions of place and the characters in this story made me nostalgic for the conversations I listened to during my childhood, where the grown ups reminded each other of stories from the old days, from tall stories and true stories about the extended family, of friends and neighbours, of whisky stills, and house fires to collect the insurances, local scandals and plenty of absurdities. In this book Alan Marshall tells these same kind of stories.
Alan Marshall was born in Noorat in 1902 and contracted Polio as a child. He was left with a twisted back and legs that didn’t work. Despite the inconvenience of having to use crutches, (and Marshall barely even acknowledges that his legs or crutches were a nuisance), the author tells the story of a full and active childhood in the country, racing all over the countryside with his friends, getting into fights at school, riding horses; a feat which left his parents white faced with terror, and going out into the bush camping with bullockies. The only thing I didn’t find in the stories which I expected was the legendary swearing, as it is common knowledge that bullocks don’t recognise when they are spoken to unless they are sworn at.
Marshall’s father was a horse breaker who must have also been a great story teller. From the way he tells the story is obvious that his father gave Marshall the confidence to try anything and everything and to never give in. The stories from my childhood show the older generation to have been tougher and more stoical than those who followed and that is how this book reads too.
The stories were funnier too, and a kind of funny that doesn’t exist now. Marshall’s stories were of the “Cripes, he lost his pants fishing and it were a full moon,” or, “Strewth, that old swaggie who used to come round here fell in the fire when he was full of metho and God rest him, the poor beggar’s dead now,” variety.
The Australia I grew up in has been and gone, as has the Australia of Alan Marshall’s childhood. It was an age where only people of British descent counted in Australia. I’m not making any judgements here, as Marshall was a man of his time, as we all were, but the omissions in the story are also telling. There are no stories of Aboriginal people, or Chinese or even stories of Marshall’s mother. Only men counted.
Marshall advises that he changed names and circumstances to tell his story in the most entertaining way, but everybody who featured in his stories would be long dead now. I really enjoyed I Can Jump Puddles and am going to seek out the following two autobiographical books by this author, where I am hoping to be further reminded of a time gone by.