The Ice is Coming, The Dark Bright Water, and Journey Behind the Wind by Patricia Wrightson

This entry is part 20 of 23 in the series 2023 Reads

Like all the posts in my 2023 reads list, this comes at a lag, meaning I read this a while back—in this case, I’ve made my way through the trilogy in the past few months, and I finished the last volume not at all long ago. 

I read The Ice Is Coming as a kid, though I barely remembered it beyond that it had a protagonist named Wirrun, who was young member of Australia’s indigenous people. The cover I remember isn’t the one on the edition I have now: it looked like the one on the right. But that cover, and the book, have stuck in my mind for decades, and somehow, even without remembering much of the plot of that first novel, I knew I wanted to read the rest of the series someday. 

Wrightson is an author whose legacy is… well, complicated. When these books were published, she was praised generally—including by indigenous authors—and it was said that she’s approached the topic of Australian indigenous stories with respect and caution: for one thing, she’d supposedly avoided characters and beings from religious narratives, and focused on more common-folkloric figures. (Whether the separation is as simple as that, of course, I cannot really say, though I’ve seen comments that suggest she was oversimplifying things.)

Times have changed: now, Australia has laws governing how the work of non-indigenous authors handles such topics, and it’s generally the sort of thing that is frowned upon these days throughout the English-speaking world. I’m old enough, though, to remember when we differentiated between misappropriation and appropriation—the former, obviously disrespectful, wrong, abusive, or otherwise worthy of criticism, but the latter not necessarily so. 

And yet, from what little I’ve seen online, Wrightson’s remembered fondly, if awkwardly. I can understand this: she seems to approach indigenous culture with curiosity, respect, and an understanding that she is an outsider, and her indigenous characters (“The People”) are centered in the narrative; along with the “Inlanders” (white settlers, but people more in tune with the land than the city folk), they are less flighty and more aware than the “Happy People” (the country’s childlike, ignorant, mostly-white city dwellers).  

As for each book:

The first, The Ice is Coming, is a fascinating adventure with a lot of very compelling moments, tightly plotted and engaging. The Mimi—an unlikely heroine—and Wirrun have an unusual and really compelling relationship, and it’s heartening when Wirrun finds aid in unexpected corners—an Inlander and several local communities of The People alike. (What I especially found fascinating was how Wrightson figured out a way to write a pastoral, wilderness fantasy epic set in the modern day.) Meanwhile, the villains of the piece, the Ninya—ice spirits from the depths of the earth—present a credible and unsettling threat, and their defeat is by means that are unusual and creative. 

The Dark Bright Water, the second novel, is a bit more convoluted. It picks up soon after The Ice Is Coming left off, but only to put everything on pause almost immediately. Wirrun’s had enough of the spirits and just wants to get a job and save some money, so there’s a whole “resisting the call” thing at the start. Only after a fair bit of coaxing can he be prevailed upon go investigate some strangeness out in the desert, and to acknowledge some strangeness he’s been experiencing all along. A series of strange events end up with a friend of his metamorphosed into a beast, and he must help rehabilitate both the friend and the spirit who transformed him—with an unusual outcome for each rehabilitation, to say the least. It’s in The Dark Bright Water that I started to wonder what age-group Wrightson envisioned for these books: there’s some vague references to sexuality toward the end that I’m not sure would have been considered acceptable in juvenile novels of the 70s, but the books still seem to have been marketed that way… perhaps due to Wrightson’s general career background?

Of course, things unfold as they’re meant to, but one has to accept that this happens for spiritual reasons in order to accept how the result of a chance encounter that ends up comprising a third of the novel. Then again, one of the principles of Wirrun’s spiritual quest is that if something is meant to find him, it will, so I suppose it’s at least self-consistent. The other odd thing is that Wrightson ends up spending the first thirty pages or so tying up the plot of The Ice Is Coming, though I have to confess I didn’t mind that as much as I expected to. Even with all this plotty complexity, Wrightson’s descriptions of the natural world, and of the spirits of the wilderness too, are deeply attentive and obviously thoughtful: this is an author who cared deeply about the landscape in which her tales took place, and I was happy to spend time among the rocks and ghost gums and ironwood trees. My biggest complaint by far is that unlike the rest of the trilogy (yes, in the same printing), Del Rey typeset The Dark Bright Water—a 1978 paperback printing—with really small type, presumably so that the book could be kept down to under 200 pages. I actually found I needed reading glasses to cope with it… though, maybe that’s just me.  

The final novel of the series, Journey Behind the Wind, is quite short and also the most unusual. It features a folkloric romance complication most will recognize—the magical nature-spirit wife who abandons her husband and returns to the wilds—and resolves it in a very unusual way, while the protagonist battles an unnatural spirit-being that was apparently made generations ago and which is up to no good. The novel’s a bit vague about what the “no good” is, though we get some hints, and 

Here, Wrightson does something similar to in The Dark Bright Water: she introduces a Big Story Problem, but then her protagonist would run into what seemed like a Subplot Problem, and would mostly focus on solving that. Inevitably, it would turn out that the more personal Subplot Problem was linked to the Big Story Problem, though, so that even when it didn’t completely seem like it, the protagonist would turn out to have been working on both at once. However, in Journey Behind the Wind, things are a bit more amorphous. The Wulgaru seems to be death, but also seems to be a made thing formed from stone and wood. It seems to kill one man (very early in the book) but mostly what it does is appear in a weird form and leer at people, watching balefully. I found it all a bit vague and puzzling, and wished that the tale had retained some of the clarity of the earlier books in the series, as much as it had retained Wrightson’s eagerness to capture and depict the land in her prose. The book has a pretty wild ending, though! 1

I write this having finished the third novel in the wake of the heartbreaking 2023 Referendum, which has the effect of raising questions about the viability of the literary project Wrightson was engaged in—that is, weaving a new mythos and a new imaginary for Australia built from settler and indigenous cultures and beliefs intertwined with one another. I’m not Australian, much less a descendant of the land’s original inhabitants, so I cannot judge how implicitly respectful Wrightson was in her use of cultural materials. On an explicit level, she seems to come sat things in good faith—she seems, indeed, to regard white urban Australians as clueless children and to want to imagine a kind of kinship between the Inlanders and the indigenous people of the land. Her hero is from the latter group, too. But that doesn’t necessarily mean she was fully respectful of the culture.

That said, I’m often dubious about certain ideas regarding culture. I think humans have been sharing cultural ideas for aeons—even across relative power differentials—and on the whole, doing so has been a positive thing. At least, I think it has, even when the exchange hasn’t been perfect. The big problem with this is that in settler states, the power differential between settler and indigenous person was pushed to an extreme, and that settler majorities and their governments alike were busy happily wiping out the very same culture that those oddball creative types sought out and attempted to borrow from. This isn’t unusual: it’s a common pattern that while a genocide is happening, there are artists and academics who claim the contents of the “imperiled” culture and hold it up as important and needing preservation. It happened here in Korea, too, during the Japanese occupation: while some sought to further integrate Korea into the Japanese empire, others celebrated and coopted elements of Korean culture, sometimes understanding it but just as often failing to do so, or projecting some fanciful idea of their own lost culture onto that of Korea. (I discussed that here.) Anyway, It’s not hard to see how that would be a bad look—or why Wrightson’s novel posits two distinct “types” of Australian settler—one made up of clueless urban residents who are out of step with the land and its people, and the other who know the land better and share with that its indigenous people. (Whether those categories would map onto Australians today, I don’t know, though I strongly suspect it’s more complicated than that.)

All this raises important questions that I have to consider: where I live, I’m not a settler but effectively an immigrant; but as a Canadian writer,  I’m effectively a settler from a settler nation, and if I write about Canada, I’ll have to face the same questions. (This makes me wonder if Charles de Lint’s writing has gotten much critical attention. A simple Google search reveals some, but I don’t know whether it’s been enough to really affect his legacy the way Wrightson’s was, probably because de Lint while aboriginal Canadian and American myths and legends and characters figure in some of his work, his writing isn’t preoccupied with them to the same extent; at least in what I’ve read, he acknowledges them but doesn’t put them at center stage.) 

I have one more novel by Wrightson on my shelf: The Nargun and the Stars. I hope to get around to that early next year, but for now I have a few other books on the go that I’d like to finish. In the meantime, I am curious about Australian indigenous writers who write fantasy fiction. I think that would be fascinating to read. 

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  1. The book has also aged somewhat since 1981. The most glaring instance is a moment near the end when the protagonist makes a joke about how “A man needs to beat his wife every once in a while.” Er… okay.

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