“Rush oh!” was the rallying cry of the whalers in New South Wales, shouted when they spotted their target and set out to sea. It is also the title of Australian screenwriter Shirley Barrett’s fictional debut, a charming blend of history, whaling folklore and period illustrations, based on an actual whaling family in Eden, New South Wales.
Rush Oh! is set during the harsh whaling season of 1908. At 19, Mary Davidson is the oldest daughter of the community’s lead whaler. Responsible for the care of her five motherless siblings, she is also the cook and laundress for her father’s crew and old enough to understand what the use of kerosene over whale oil might mean to the family finances. A mysterious new arrival—a minister turned whaler—provides some romantic distraction for Mary, but the day-to-day worries over dwindling reserves and an empty larder take precedence.
Barrett’s inspiration for this novel came from a visit to the Killer Whale Museum in Eden, and it is her depiction of the symbiotic relationship between human and beast that gives this novel so much of its offbeat charm. Killer whales earned their nickname because of their method of attacking and hunting fish and sea mammals with incredible skill and dexterity. In Rush Oh!, the pod of whales work in tandem with the fishermen, luring larger whales to the bay, and receiving their cut of the spoils when the killing is done.
Rush Oh! is buoyed by Mary’s tart and unsentimental tone and wry observations of her family and neighbors. But her gentle scorn blinds her to some of the events happening right under her nose, especially when her frivolous sister Louisa makes a decision that shocks the whole family. Despite the graphic depictions of whale hunting (perhaps not for the squeamish), Rush Oh! is a lively, humorous portrayal of the domestic side of whaling at the end of its heyday, told with genuine sympathy and good will.