John Kinsella’s In the Shade of the Shady Tree: Stories of Wheatbelt Australia should entice the reader who enjoys unusual fiction in a strange place of extremes, off the tourist map. Kinsella describes his very short short stories as “stories told for the moment, out of experience more than ‘art,’”—similar to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Kinsella’s interests are how the people
interact with the place, and how they make that place what it is . . . the weirdness that comes from the ordinary, the extraordinary from the matter-of-fact. The behavior of people seems more odd to me than, say, supernatural belief. I ask how secrecy is a part of everyone’s lives, and how disturbance goes hand-in-hand with the predictable. A good deed can mask ill intent; a bad deed can result from well-meaning acts. There are rarely neat resolutions, and other than death, few absolute conclusions. Even death leaves . . . many loose threads. . . . Some [of the stories] have fable-like morals, others are fantastical, but many are just “insights” into an aspect of being here . . . [a] glimpse into character, and how that character is affected by “place.” . . . . In the end, it’s a place of people: their successes and failures, of materiality and spirit.
Kinsella grew up in Wheatbelt Australia, a large area reaching north to the outback and south to the sea, areas close to only one city—Perth, a six-hour drive away. The farms in the stories are marginal, mainly from drought, high heat, and the salinity of over-farming. These stories read like slices of life, each with real place names. Yet the stories’ endings are fictionally important, meaningful or mysterious, always unexpected.
These five-pages-or-less stories combine to give the reader a full experience of the place and the life there. People and place are so inseparably intertwined that certain relationships and the land’s features reoccur frequently. These are tales of rivalries, the effects of a solitary life, the effects of religious belief, pacts between unknown neighbors, damaging secrets, prejudices not just against "Abos" (Note: The word "Abos" is considered a racist term to describe Australian Aborigines; Kinsella explores the use of this term in his work.), but also against anyone wild or foreign/lesbians/hippies, loneliness, saving of the trees and birds, and pride in self-sufficiency. Similarly, natural features reappear throughout the book—walls of fire from extreme heat, caves, and the importance of a shade tree, like in the title story (which links to another story, the only two to do so in the collection). Probably the most common theme is the unexpected realization of the appreciation of nature.
Drought is the first thing the reader meets in “Rain,” because the narrator is the only one who has rain, and thus he gains his neighbors’ envy. However, he cries, as he has not done since he was child and was forbidden to do so:
Now he stares out of the window at the black swollen skies and the hard driving rain. Harder than during the days before. A deluge. He feels giddy. He sees the farm under water. He sees the green carpet become the algal floor of a fetid ocean. He sees the corpses of a thousand sheep marooned on the granite outcrop, with the ocean of his farm lapping at their hooves.
In the title story, Brian hates “The Shady Tree. The Tree at the Center of Town. The Big Fig Tree. The Lovers’ Tree.” He tells his would-be girlfriend Kerri-ann that she looks like his beloved “grandma when she was a girl.” Brian owns the land on which the shade tree grows and wants to put a hamburger joint there. After he has the tree chopped down, Kerri-ann sends him an album showing his grandma and grandpa planting the tree.
Not a tiny sapling, but a small tree—already twisted and writhing and reaching out with its shade. He could see the birth of the shade of the shady tree. A flesh-and-blood tree, held by both of them: their arteries, their skin, their hair growing together.
Consequently, he realizes he is “going nowhere fast.”
The last story, “The Legend of the Boat,” the most mysterious, is told from the perspective of a boy who can manage to swim only to a cement boat halfway across a river. Then faced with swimming the whole width, exhausted and deep in the water, he finds the boat sunk with the cabin door open.
There was a comfortable bed made up, and I lowered myself into it, breathing the crisp ocean air, already flooding the cabin. I would circumnavigate the world. . . . I had been blessed. I would be a legend. I am a legend, as you know.
The few unfamiliar Australian expressions like “willy-willy” and “dobbing” add to the stories’ atmosphere, while not hindering the enjoyment of this extraordinary collection.