Published: 2004. 264 pp.
Available: Penguin Australia
I Can Jump Puddles is Alan Marshall’s story of his childhood – a happy world in which, despite his crippling poliomyelitis, he plays, climbs, fights, swims, rides and laughs.
His world was the Australian countryside early last century: rough-riders, bushmen, farmers and tellers of tall stories – a world held precious by the young Alan Marshall.
I’ve always been a sucker for a bit of ‘golden age thinking’ and ‘I Can Jump Puddles’ hits where it hurts, right in the nostalgia. Marshall paints a vivid picture of early 20th century Victoria, a time still full of horse breakers and squatters, where the cane was delivered mercilessly and buggies still ruled the road. A place where ‘swag’ meant something entirely different than what it means today.
Alan Marshall was the first and only one in the small town of Turalla to fall victim to infantile paralysis, more widely known as polio. This terrible infliction robbed Alan of the use of his legs, but he was definitley not a cripple. Throughout the book the author details his journey of growing up in the Australian outback, which encompassed all of the usual boyhood struggles, which were usually amplified by the results of his illness. Marshall skillfully channels the tone of his youthful self and presents a simple yet warm description of his coming of age, filled to the brim with elegant imagery of the bush as well as the farm he grew up on; these depictions are some the most enjoyable sections of the book. His use of homely yet powerful images leaves the places he visits seared into your mind and it becomes hard to forget these locations. The way in which Marshall writes often makes it easy to forget that he wrote this decades after the events happened, the voice with which he narrates is unpretentious and honest, and the reader is left believing that he is still the same boy, who would believe anything he was told by passing swagmen and who worshipped his father.
The value of the novel is not only in its characterisation of the time period, but it is also a poigant reflection on the treatment of the disabled, that still resonates with its audience today. It is constantly reflected in the novel that being a cripple is very much a mindset; the young Marshall does not think of himself as disabled and is quick to take offense when it is dared mentioned by anybody else, whether intended to be used against him or in his defense. It is not a matter of can and can’t for Alan, it is a matter of how. Any obstacle he encounters, where it seems his affliction stands in his way, he becomes determined to overcome, and he succeeds. He may not complete these tasks in the same fashion as his school chums but he earns his place in their eyes. It is the adults of the world who see fit to limit his potential, those who have been socialised to believe disabled means that somebody is not able.
The cast of minor characters is just as rich and seductive as the narrative, so full of life and effortlessly enchanting they often steal the page for the few short chapters in which they are present. The Fiddler, a metho addict, who is befriended by Alan, is one of my particular favourites, the tall tales he tells and the childlike innocent with which our young protagonist accepts them as fact, even after the dismissals of his father, are timelessly charming. The bard like Prince, who sings for the posters out in the harsh bush is also one who is hard to forget and a certain rendition of ‘Wild Colonial Boy’ is a moment to look forward to.
If anybody has the secret to writing an insightful and enjoyable memoir it’s Alan Marshall. ‘I Can Jump Puddles’ is a true jewel of Australian literature.
The way I felt finishing this book can be summed up in one line from Alan’s father: “You’re a good bloke, Alan. I like you and I reckon you’re a good rider”.