Babes in the Woods
I live in Melbourne but was born in San Francisco. Why my parents left the United States for a place where they had no home or jobs lined up, no friends or family, is a mystery best explored another time. But as a result of my divided loyalties – I feel affection for both Australia and America – I’ve long searched for similarities between the two countries. There are plenty, and one that’s filled my head for years is our shared fascination with lost child stories.
If you look at a map of Australia, you’ll see it’s almost the same size as the United States – a bit smaller at 2.97 million square miles to the US’s 3.8 million square miles. With one significant difference: Australians cling tight to the coast. All of our capital cities are built near the sea. The largest inland city in what is a vast expanse of mostly empty land is Alice Springs, population 26,000.
Early settlers in Australia were terrified of what might exist away from the coast, even before they knew the exact size of this enormous continent. They weren’t wrong to be frightened. Pale-skinned people from countries where grass grew lush from regular rain and the land was warmed rather than burned by the sun were not built for a harsh environment. Even on the coast where the land is gentlest, settlers found themselves in a punishingly hot place prone to ferocious storms, populated with people who spoke languages they didn’t know, trees they didn’t recognize, animals that were ludicrous (a duck-billed, fur-coated, egg-laying mammal?), and where none of their crops would grow. On encountering the indigenous population, settlers slaughtered them in repeated acts of unforgivable cruelty–brutality as a response to fear .
Perhaps because the new Australians were more intimidated by the land than were settlers in the United States, “lost in the bush” stories are core to our understanding of our history and ourselves. Europeans took their lost child stories (Hansel and Gretel, Red Riding Hood) everywhere they went. But whereas in America’s early settler years, lost children were often thought to have been abducted, Australia’s lost children were lured by unseen forces into the bush. Not by woodsmen, witches, wolves or Indians but by the land itself. In the Australian novel The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859), Henry Kingsley describes a lost boy buried in “the treacherous beautiful forest which had lured him to his destruction.” The idea of the land as an unknowable entity is ingrained in our psyche, the subject of much nonfiction, including Peter Pierce’s The Country of Lost Children: An Australian Anxiety (1999).
The mystery at the heart of Picnic at Hanging Rock (a 1967 novel and 1975 film) combines white Australians’ fear of both the land and its indigenous people. In the story, set on Valentine’s Day 1900, three schoolgirls and their teacher set off in their wildly impractical Victorian frocks to explore the bush. Only one girl returns, too traumatized to speak. Hanging Rock is a real place of spiritual significance to the local Aboriginal community, and the story suggests the girls had a mysterious communing with the land and its original people, that they were called by the rock. They never return.
The 1988 film A Cry in the Dark (starring Meryl Streep) marked a shift. There had, of course, been abduction cases in Australia, with books and films based on events. But in the real-life story of two-month-old baby Azaria Chamberlain, who went missing on a family camping trip at Uluru, there was the potential for the villain to be either human or native animal. The parents insisted the baby had been taken from their tent by a dingo, but within days they were under suspicion themselves. The baby’s mother was tried and imprisoned for murder. She was acquitted after serving three years in jail when fresh evidence proved the baby was, in fact, killed by a dingo.
There are, I know, countless exceptions to my sweeping generalizations — fictional American children lost at the hands of non-human forces (in Netflix’s Stranger Things, Stephen King’s It) and real children lost to storms, avalanches, the sea. And in Australian Ethel Pedley’s famous Dot and the Kangaroo children’s book, a five-year-old lost in the bush is guided home by a red kangaroo, shown en route the friendly wonders of the Australian bush. But still, in one form or another, lost children stories have rattled and haunted both of my countries from early on.
My novel Lost Boy Found (Grand Central 2020) is inspired by the real-life Bobby Dunbar story. In life and art it begins with familiar tropes: a brave father searches for his lost son while the mother stays home, teetering on the edge of madness; suspicion is cast on local and itinerant men, drowning and death by animals having been ruled out; the media’s account of events cannot be trusted. This case caught my attention because the lost child, once found, is claimed by two women, one of whom must be lying. Should you wish to read the facts of this event you’ll find them in Tal McThenia’s book A Case for Solomon. My story deals only with fiction and as such afforded me the luxury of diving inside imaginary people’s minds to ask why a woman would claim another person’s child, and why the lost child wouldn’t shout out the truth.
I deliberately made the same choice so many tellers of lost child narratives do – I dropped the child out of the story as soon as possible. In cautionary fairytales lost children hold center stage. But otherwise they’re pushed to the shadows so adults can wrestle with anxieties and fears. We wonder if we would act with boldness, and hope we would rise to the challenge of protecting our most vulnerable. We consider how far we would go to find our child. Because we know, when we hear the tale of a lost child, that life is uncontrollable, despite all our efforts, and that whatever part of the world we call home is more complex than we really know, and that everything can change in an instant.