A Duel of Words, by Dee White

The ‘duel of words’ took place at a difficult time in Australia’s history. In the lead up to Federation…on 1 January 1901, Australia was struggling to build its identity. The gold rush was over, sheep farmers couldn’t sell their wool and the country was in severe drought.

Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson are two of Australia’s best-known poets. What is perhaps less known is that although they wrote extensively for the same newspaper, The Bulletin, they had quite different ways of showing life in the bush. Duel of Words, a hardback non-fiction title sets the scene at the end of the nineteenth century and introduces the two poets and their backgrounds. The ‘duel’ takes place over several months as they respond to the other’s description of outback life. Paterson’s poems tended to idealise the bush and the characters who inhabited it, perhaps reasoning that Australia needed positive images to pull them through the Depression. Lawson, on the other hand, was of the view that glossing over ‘discomfort and isolation’ would not help Australians understand the realities of their land.

A Duel of Words gives insight into the difficult period in Australia’s history which followed the boom of earlier years. It also showcases the talent of two men, who observed the same landscape, yet reflected it quite differently. Double page spreads include photos and illustrations, including the diversity in paintings of the period (including one of my favourite Drysdale paintings, ‘The Drover’s Wife). Page embellishments are iconic and include rusting corrugated iron, ants, Bogong moths, bark, leaves and more. There is a taste of the poetry of both men, with enough information for interested readers to track down more. A Duel of Words’ doesn’t set out to decide who was right and who was wrong in this duel, rather to stimulate thinking about history and how it was recorded. There is a contents page, a glossary of challenging words and an index for ease of navigation. White has given the reader a chocolate box of historical titbits for sampling. Recommended for mid-primary readers.

A Duel of Words, Dee White
Insights series, Heinemann Library 2008
ISBN: 9781740707367