The Murrumbidgee Kid
Viking, $29.95 pb, 448 pp
Set during the Depression, Peter Yeldham’s eighth novel follows the adventures of Belle Carson and her son Teddy. Despite having enjoyed considerable renown throughout Sydney’s bohemian enclaves, Belle’s ambitions as an actress were never fully realised. Determined that the same fate should not befall her son, she turns her back on her husband and their steady life in Gundagai to introduce Teddy to the glittering city.
The novel is crammed with an array of Dickensian characters – the dashing-yet-dastardly former beau, an Establishment lawyer whose sterling exterior conceals steel lurking within, a plain-but-honest husband, a plodding copper and a screech of avaricious landlords. Teddy’s agent even adopts the moniker Uriah Heep. All of which serves to reveal the book’s true colours.
Although the title and Bryce Courtenay’s recommendation suggest otherwise, The Murrumbidgee Kid is not a coming-of-age story. It is not the child but his mother who sits at the heart of this tale. The fact that it is Belle’s wistful face gracing the front cover tells us as much. Forced to abandon her career with the birth of her illegitimate son, she spends her life striving to make him a star. Eventually succumbing to a mysterious malady, she reveals on her deathbed to her unsuspecting son the true identity of his father. What we are dealing with is more Moulin Rouge (2001) than I Can Jump Puddles (1955).
The scenes with extended dialogue – catty exchanges between stage mothers and negotiations with a Latino Lothario – are particularly enjoyable. This is no surprise given Yeldham’s celebrated screenwriting career. Just don’t expect a study of the period. The 1930s merely serve as a backdrop to the action, and historical references aren’t fleshed out in any great detail.