Homeless wonder on Victoria's plains


Tree Palace, by Craig Sherborne. Text Publishing, March 2014. Website

Cover of Tree Palace, by Craig Sherborne shows a chandelier strung from a treeJen:

Buffeted by the winds of social and economic change, the beaten path of the archetypal itinerant can be traced across Europe and America (think The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, by W. H. Davies, Alexander Masters's Stuart: A Life Backwards and, of course, the American classic, Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath).

In his new novel Tree Palace, Melbourne writer and poet Craig Sherborne offers a fresh, affecting and genuinely antipodean view of the peripatetic life in the dusty plains of north-west Victoria.

Moira, her kids Zara and Rory, her partner Shane and his brother Midge are the kind of people you wouldn't think to look twice at. And that's just the way they like it.

Living on welfare and on the constant lookout for abandoned houses to either live in or raid (what they take away they can sell) they're known colloquially as 'trants' (short for itinerants). A disused house outside the fictitious town of Barleyville offers them something new. Stability. But when the 15-year-old Zara falls pregnant and Shane finds himself under the suspicion of the local police, things begin to once again look uncertain.

Here the detail falls as sparsely as rain. Language is metered out with care: 'It was late enough in the day for a carpet of sun to spread out in front of the porch, squeezing through a gap between the L of the house and caravan. Clouds took it away and put it back again like sleight of hand.'

Against this obdurate backdrop, the characters arrive on the page somehow fully realised. Moira, the wallflower-turned-undisputed-matriarch, is the epitome of adaptation and survival. Unable to read or write, Moira instead puts on her 'cunning hat' to get ahead — often to humorous affect, but never at the expense of her humanity.

Sherborne breathes life not just into a narrative, but a cause. These otherwise overlooked and forgotten people might be parochial, but they're never parodied. They might be uneducated, but they have a voice. A voice carried onward by the errant breeze, perfectly in tune with the diurnal struggle of this strange, indifferent land.

I don't know about you, Barry, but Sherborne had me at chapter one. Yes this comes down to the writing, which is, quite simply, sublime, but it goes further than that. There's such feeling; such heart that it's impossible not to fall for Moira, Shane & co. Tree Palace is a reminder that even inside the smallest of stories there's room enough for the stirring of universal themes.


That's an astute placing of Sherborne's second novel, Jen; I'll see your Steinbeck etc. and raise you the antipodean wanderers of Henry Lawson.

Sherborne does capture the dynamics of these iconic trants with humour, artistry and decided warmth. And while Moira and Shane's wobbly family has a willful crack at flying under the radar, the stakes are genuinely and engagingly high.

There is much to wish for if society's dubbed you as losers (the author affectingly dubs his characters 'the last of their kind'), and the quest for a home is at the heart of Tree Palace.

My sympathies are engaged early in the piece, especially by womanchild Zara and the reduced figure of Midge. But they are all up against it. Shane and Midge in their enterprises, pushing against the weight of hypocrisies and barriers of respectable trades. Moira's selfless schemes. The frantic fears and hopes (often inseparable) of the kids young and old, who roil the mud and muck they mistake for bedrock.

The wallowing's intermingled with raw majesty; Midge, as he holds Zara's child, finding himself 'connected to the world's holy scheme'. Shane connecting with Rory in a fatherhood lived beyond blood and obligation. Moira adhering to the mantras that losing is better and 'we take care of our own'. These are gracenotes in a blues symphony.

And, yes Jen, while they are indeed doled out with care, Sherborne has a genius for conceiving and depicting the novel's 'joists' — the lines and lengths that tie character and plot.

The sweat painting circles on a copper's shirt. The newborn's rooting and squirming for a nipple. Dry winds 'that pushed you back like a hand pushes'; squatters' fanciful home renovations that would 'stick out like dog's balls'.

You feel the pressures of limited cash and fewer options; the shame and stigma of illiteracy and poverty; the whiplash of judgment. But all's far from bleak.

Endurance and hope thrive: Moira is going to be there for her man and the rest of their clan, come what may. Shops may well be boarded up, with 'mail blackening the doorways like rot', but that can help trants.

The heat may well suck the will from spirits and dried-out waterways like 'Curdle Creek, which was only a creek in name'. But this mob are stayers; patching up what they need so 'all they had to do was wait for rain'.

This is timeless, universal storytelling that is nonetheless quintessentially Australian. The best yarns can walk small but go a longish way, and Sherborne continues to leave sizeable footprints.

Jen Vuk and Barry GittinsJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend. Barry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army who has written for Inside History, Crosslight, The Transit Lounge, Changing Attitude Australia and The Rubicon.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Jen Vuk, Tree Palace, Craig Sherborne



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Existing comments

Thanks, guys. Been looking for the next book on my list - sounds like this is it.

David | 14 March 2014  

Jen and Barry, I was born in NW Victoria. I understand full well the heat , the hot north winds, the dried up creeks and rivers.I have seen people with limited choices struggling to survive. What I dont understand though is how our society perpetuates the continuation of a homeless, battling itinerant class. The grapes of Wrath was written 80 years ago, Kylie Tennant picked up the Australian trants in her novel The Battlers", Tim Winton in Cludstreet touched on the subject, Harp in the South did the same. Our writers have over the years highlighted the needs of our citizens who through their limited opportunities battle to survive. Lack of formal education , poor physical and emotional or mental health , lack of a well paying job or no job at all, meagre welfare payments, all conspire to assail the battler . Fortunately some angels , people in organisations like St. vincent de Paul, in Resource teams helping Asylum seekers , case workers and social workers make a difference. When will our political leaders reiterate publicly that :no child is going to live in poverty and provide the funds to implement appropriate program. They would sure get my vote

Celia | 14 March 2014  

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