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Review: Down Under, Bill Bryson

There are more things in Australia that can kill you than anywhere else, so how could Bill Bryson ever keep away from writing a travel memoir about the country?  In his travels from coast to coast and several places in between, Bryson both entertains and informs us about a place that, for its size and place in the world, we know surprisingly little about.

Bill Bryson is a delightful writer and I almost wish I’d discovered him sooner!  Down Under is my first proper travel book by him and I can’t tell you how eager I am to read more.  It’s true that I know very little about Australia, so much of the information he shared was completely new to me.  In my job, I’ve done some writing about Australia, but mainly about tourism; it was fascinating to have the historical perspective given to me so I could set it aside my knowledge of the country’s more hospitable places.

My favorite parts of the memoir were generally when he was exploring the middle, largely uninhabitable parts of the country.  It’s hard to believe just how many expeditions were launched there – and equally hard to believe that the Australians haven’t managed to spread across such a vast amount of land.  Yet with Bryson writing, I could feel the dust and the heat and I am pretty sure I now know why no one really wants to live there; not only is it far from every amenity but there’s truly no purpose to eking a life out in such difficult conditions.

I like that Bryson seems to travel in the same way that I do; I’d struggle to really identify with someone who does things I’d never experience.  As it is, Australia is expensive, and I won’t go there for years if ever, so I could almost feel like I was experiencing things through his eyes.  He chats with people, visits monuments that I’d visit, and at the same time shares the fascinating history and culture of the country.  I can’t imagine a better honorary tour guide.  I wouldn’t have minded some pictures, but he writes well enough that I could picture the locations in my head – or just look online, as I did several times – easily enough.

What truly disturbed me overall was the treatment of native Australians – a problem that lies more with the Australian government than with Bryson.  I was appalled to learn about the Stolen Generations and even more saddened to discover that many Aboriginal Australians drift through life, missing out on schools and jobs or any parts of modern life.  It’s even sadder to hear the way that white Australians have simply given up and don’t know what to do about it.  I almost wish Bryson had brought this more to the forefront of the book, rather than asking about it occasionally and being stymied, but I’m not sure what else he could have done, especially not if he aimed to keep the tone of the rest of the book light and funny as he did.

Anyway, I thought Down Under was an excellent read.  It certainly helped me get a broader picture of Australia and educated me in some senses at the same time.  I can’t wait to read more by Bill Bryson.

In the US, this book is titled In a Sunburned Country. I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.

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