Shepherd's Hut Like an Aussie Huck Finn

By Tim Winton
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 288 pages.

One of the hardest things for a novelist to do is capture adolescence. Most writers such as 57-year-old Tim Winton, who are accomplished enough to land a novel with a major publishing house, have long ago left behind the confused logic of adolescence. Plus, most of us would have trouble explaining our own coming of age, let alone concoct a convincing story for someone else. In literary terms, there's a reason why Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been, since 1884, the gold standard is depicting the adolescent mind.

Winton's The Shepherd's Hut will, in many ways, remind you of Huckleberry Finn. His 15-year-old protagonist and narrator Jackson ("Jaxie") Clackton is–like Winton– Australian, but the parallels to Huck Finn are striking. Both Huck and Jaxie grew up semi-feral, both have abusive fathers, both cuss a blue streak, neither is much for book learning, and both engage in a great adventure. Jaxie is a bit cruder, but replace the dark Mississippi alluvial soil with the parched red sands of Western Australian, make the dangers more site-specific, and exchange Twain's runaway slave for an exiled priest, and the two tales converge.

This is the case even though The Shepherd's Hut is set in the present. Winton gives the story a timeless quality. Jaxie knows some music and news from television, but he's effectively removed from direct everyday reality. He lives in a dying town in isolated Western Australia, an area roughly four times the size of Texas with under 2.6 million people—more than 75% of whom live in the city of Perth. No city luxuries for Jaxie; his town is so dead that even the IGA has closed. The Clacktons are poor, Jaxie is unpopular in school, and he's a loner–except for a childhood friend Lee (Lee-Ann) who becomes a bit more than that as they move into their teenage years. As if Jaxie's life can't get any worse, his mother dies of cancer, a tragedy that exacerbates his father's drinking and penchant for violence. When Jaxie and Lee are caught in a compromising position, she is carted off to a town far away. Jaxie has to deal with losing Lee, his aunt's withering condemnation of his morals, and a damaged eye courtesy of a clouting from his father—a figure Jaxie despises so much that he calls him "Captain Wankbag."

Jaxie's adventure begins when his father is killed in a freakish garage accident and Jaxie discovers his body. In his 15-year-old mind, he's sure he'll be accused of murdering the old bastard. So Jaxie sets off across the empty expanses with a vague idea of finding his soul mate Lee and living away from people. To give a sense of how little Jaxie has thought this through, he takes a rifle to shoot game, but not many cartridges. He wisely chucks his Vans for hiking shoes, but grabs a plastic cooler instead of water bags, doesn't pack extra clothing, and hastily grabs a butter knife instead of a proper hunting blade. (Trying skinning a kangaroo with a butter knife!)

Winton vividly describes the landscape, but does so in ways that emphasize how it would be seen through 15-year-old eyes. I admired how Winton depicted the vastness of the land and its silent indifference to those upon it. In this sense, Winton makes us feel Jaxie's peril in ways more profound than harrowing escapes from brown snakes, venomous spiders, abandoned mine shafts, stray barbed wire, or monitor lizards. In fact, Winton mainly makes us worry that Jaxie will perish of dehydration or starvation.

One thing that doesn't endanger Jaxie is loneliness. He is relieved to find a water tank in the middle of nowhere, but disgusted to find that there's actually someone living in the old shepherd's hut to which it's attached. Enter Finton MacGillis, an elderly Irishman living alone in a place that Jaxie thinks is overpopulated by a factor of one. We eventually learn that Finton is an exiled priest who talks non-stop, but won't say why he's been transported to his solitary fate. Can Jaxie trust Finton, or is he some sort of conman or pedophile? He thinks he wants nothing to do with Finton, but can't explain why he keeps delaying his quest to find Lee.

What ensues is a strange relationship that makes sense only because Winton so thoroughly probes subjects such as the teenage psyche, the impact of loneliness on adults, and the spiritual reflection unvarnished nature induces. Something dramatic occurs to upset the delicate equilibrium, but that's up to you to discover. It's also up to you to determine if it's compelling. I found it slightly more plot convenient than convincing, but the rest of the book enthralled me.

I highly recommend this book. You will quickly understand why Winton is a four-time winner of the Miles Franklin Award, which is given to the best work on Australian life, and why he's been twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Rob Weir

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