First Published 1978
My parents were absolutely enthralled with All the Rivers Run the miniseries when it first screened in 1983 – I was a kid of 12 and didn’t get to stay up to see all of it. My dad, who is mad about paddle steamers and has had a lifelong passion for the Murray, was in heaven.
We made trips to Echuca in early ’84, when the Pevensey still had its “Philadelphia” name plate, and again when it screened again in 1987. By then I was old enough to see the entire thing; I was now going on 16, and got the book for my birthday from my newly remarried dad.
Having spent so many of my childhood holidays at different spots along the river, I could not only picture the happenings in the book, but also smell and almost taste those places. And with a family friend, Judith Crossley, writing folksongs about the riverboats Coonawarra and Enterprise, I felt that I belonged to the river and its steamers.
The story begins when 12-year-old Philadelphia Gordon (Delie) has just lost her family on the day they were due to arrive in Australia from England in 1892, and charts her life until she is almost 80. The setting is the Murray River, with Delie living first in the Snowy Mountains and moving further and further downstream as the book progresses, ending in Goolwa, SA.
As a dreamy 16 year old I spent hours in that world and when I wasn’t reading the book I was painting watercolour landscapes of my own. Around that time my stepmother took up art classes and began painting in oils, many river scenes included, and while this may be a coincidence I prefer to think that this story did enrich the lives of the people in my family. As the years went by I read pretty much everything of Nancy Cato that I could get hold of, although I found the biographies a bit dry, as she could take less liberties with the thoughts and feelings of her main characters. No, it was her fiction I loved, and all my adult life I have wanted to create these kinds of sagas, these other existences where you could escape your present.
All the Rivers Run stood out as my all time favourite, and whenever anyone says ‘Great Australian Novel’ it is still the first book I think of, even if it was originally published as a trilogy.
Every few years I would reread it, getting more out of it each time, as time carried me along through different seasons of life. After reading it as a naive teenager, I then revisited it as a young woman-of-the-world in her early twenties, and later as a soon to be married mother of one. I would have loved to read it when I had three kids under five, but like Delie, didn’t have the time! Then I was a young widow.
Suddenly it was 14 years since I read the book, I was long overdue for it, and it had been waiting by my bedside for months. After a third look at Jane Eyre, I got started.
So how did this book, which is all about the passage of time, stand up to those years? Did I still love it? The answer is of course yes, it is still part of me, I relate a lot to Delie and her wanting to be part of a thriving art (or writing) scene but am happier buried in the country. I also am bringing up four children on my own; their father was incapacitated for a few months before he died. I may not have a Master’s ticket for a steamer but I do hold a truck licence if that’s of any comparison.
My father retired to Goolwa, just like Delie, and I used to poke fun at him for doing so.
As for the book itself, I am not as much in awe of it as I once was – I found the first book got on my nerves with its endless talk of Delie’s blue eyes and that the author overdid the presentiment thing when it came to Adam’s fate. I was impatient to get on with the later parts, but I think this is more to do with where I am in life than anything, as I enjoyed the early bits when I was younger. Now I like the third book where she is middle aged, as I am at present.
It is clever how time speeds up as the novel proceeds, as life itself does; I thought Cato did that very well.
I like the way feminist issues are covered and the conflict between the generations of women, as there seems to be one generation of women who wants to be at work followed by one generation who is happy enough as a wife and mother. In my life it was my mother who fought to be able to go out to work and I have had to fight to stay home against a government that wants me out working! In the book Delie and her granddaughter Vicki are women who want to do things, where Meg is happy to be a housewife.
As for spiritual and religious issues, I am not where I was when I first read the book, so one or two anti-Christian passages grated on me a bit, which earlier didn’t bother me, but there you go. Interesting then that she used a Bible quote for her title.
I also noticed quite a few Jane Eyre moments, especially when the aunt who takes in Delie when she is orphaned is on her deathbed, after being predeceased by her only son; like Jane, Delie goes in there hoping for a reconciliation that she does not get. There is another scene much later when a large house burns down having been set on fire by a drunken woman who Delie has seen wandering the halls late at night.
Having said that, there is no Mr Rochester here; all of Cato’s men are all too human, which is something that I really respected when I was reading it as a 16 year old, and I still like that she has made her characters this way, and would do the same should I ever succeed in writing that Great Australian Novel.