Reviewed by Rod McLary
On 21 March 1972 in Mackay, fourteen-year-old Marilyn Wallman rode her bike to the school bus stop. Ten minutes after she left home, her two brothers found her abandoned bike and schoolbag by the side of the road. Marilyn was never seen again and her killer has never been identified.
This tragic incident – and other similar disappearances – was the inspiration for Maryrose Cuskelly’s new book The Cane. Set in a small country town in North Queensland during the early 1970s, it tells the story of the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Janet McClymont as she walked to a nearby house to babysit the neighbour’s children. But even more, The Cane tells the story of the impact of Janet’s disappearance on the local community set against the backdrop of a sugar town caught between the urgency to find Janet – or at least the person responsible for her disappearance – and its need to begin the cane harvest.
The author has perceptively described the latent parochialism and misogyny of country people faced with an event which is almost beyond their comprehension, and their readiness to turn against those whose appearance and values set them apart. One ‘blow-in’ – Eamonn Sullivan a teacher at the local school – is particularly targeted because of his long hair, his radical views and his participation in protest marches in Brisbane. Eamonn’s presence in the town is seen by some as a harbinger of unwanted and unnecessary societal changes especially when he gives a couple of his students copies of the controversial [and banned] The Little Red Schoolbook.
But at the heart of the novel is Janet’s disappearance and its reminder of another loss some ten years before. Then, sixteen-year-old Cathy Creadie – whose parents still live in the town – disappeared while swimming and her body was found some miles away in mangroves. The impact of her death – whether accidental or deliberate – continues to reverberate through the town and its collective memory and is at the forefront of everyone’s minds as they search for Janet.
As the title suggests, sugar cane and its subsequent harvesting – and the prerequisite burn-offs –figure large in the novel. The town and its inhabitants are surrounded by cane fields which have a sinister presence beyond the mere physical. More than once, the author creates in the mind of the reader a perception that the fields of cane are a threatening presence – ‘the fields of cane pressing in on either side of the car’ . One of Janet’s fellow students Essie dreams she is in a cane field: But with each stride she takes, another drill of cane rises up between her and open ground. She fights to escape, to push aside the thick stalks … the cane grows ever more quickly, ever more thickly. Something is moving within it. The stalks batter and shake against each other .
Maryrose Cuskelly has crafted an engaging and tense story replete with atmosphere, and the reader is readily immersed in the dynamics of a town located within the ‘claustrophobic cane’ . The author’s characters are sharply drawn and the fault lines of a community shaped by fear, misogyny and narrow-mindedness are exposed.
The Cane is a book well worth the reading and is a fine example of rural noir. If ‘rural noir’ is defined as a story where its people are characterised by their culture, their history, their beliefs, and are anchored in the landscape, then The Cane truly meets that definition.
In 2016, the author was awarded the New England Thunderbolt Prize for Crime Writing [non-fiction] for her essay Well Before Dark about Marilyn Wallman’s disappearance and how it percolated through her childhood. Her book Wedderburn: A true tale of blood and dust  was longlisted for Best Debut and Best True Crime in the 2019 Davitt Awards.
by Maryrose Cuskelly
Allen and Unwin
ISBN 978 176087 985 3