To Become a Whale tells the story of 13-year-old Sam Keogh, whose mother has died. Sam has to learn how to live with his silent, hitherto absent father, who decides to make a man out of his son by taking him to work at Tangalooma, then the largest whaling station in the southern hemisphere. What follows is the devastatingly beautiful story of a gentle boy trying to make sense of the terrible reality of whaling and the cruelty and alienation of his new world, the world of men.
Set around Moreton Island and Noosa in 1961, To Become a Whale is an extraordinarily vivid and haunting novel that reads like an instant classic of Australian literature. There are echoes of Craig Silvey, Favel Parrett, Tim Winton and Randolph Stow in this moving, transformative and very Australian novel.
'Hobson takes us to the depths of cruelty to show us life. A boy tries to be a man, a man tries to be a father, and both struggle to navigate what it means to be men. A great study in masculinity.'
Willy Vlautin, author of Lean on Pete and The Free
This is the first chapter, published by Allen & Unwin. Click on the Buy link at the bottom of the page to purchase the novel.
Ben Hobson lives in Brisbane and is entirely keen on his wife, Lena, and their two small boys, Charlie and Henry. He currently teaches English and Music at Bribie Island State High School. In 2014 his novella, If the Saddle Breaks My Spine, was shortlisted for the Viva La Novella prize, run by Seizureonline. To Become a Whale is his first novel.
He was told her headstone would be placed tomorrow. For now it leaned against the side of the church, a grey rectangle against the red brick. As family and friends wandered inside for cordial and lamingtons and small sausage rolls provided by the church, the boy gazed at it, the stone, and her name etched in front, so strange to see it written in full. Elizabeth Mary Keogh. Beloved mother and so on. This, the boy decided, would finally convince him of her death. So he stared as the muffled chatter through the wall slowly lost its restraint. But the stone failed to provide anything in the way of finality. The boy expected that, after a while, his father might come looking for him. He didn’t. And so, seemingly forgotten, the boy stayed by the headstone, ran a hand along it. It had been warmed by the sun. He slid his fingers over her name. In his mind he promised he would not ever forget her and that he would pray often and listen for her voice and that she would always be with him.
Later, as the two of them, father and son, walked back to his grandparents’ house from the church, a cool breeze whipped the edges of his jacket. He hugged it around him all the tighter. He struggled to keep pace with his father, who swerved on meagre drink, and every so often he jogged a little to keep up. Hard to do holding his jacket so. He caught up at a corner as his father trailed the two and a half remaining fingers of his ruined hand along a white picket fence, and the boy was finally able to catch a glimpse of the man’s face. But there were no streetlamps down this dusty street and no cars at night and the moon above was mostly hidden by clouds. His father’s face was ensconced in shadow.
His granddad and grandmother were already in bed as they returned, the older man’s snoring loud, reverber- ating through the walls. His father was careful as he shut the flyscreen door, then the main. The deadlock clunked into place, far too loud in the silence between snores. They took their shoes off and placed them neatly to the side and then started across the linoleum in their socks. They had to avoid the pot plants his grandmother obsessively collected and, in the months leading up to his mother’s death, had forgotten to water. They entered the bedroom and his father gently shut the door, which muffled the snoring only a bit. This room had belonged to his mother and aunty when they were girls, the aunty dead some time ago now. Her picture on the dresser in front of the mirror with his mother as a girl, posed in black and white. Both were dolled up in floral dresses, his mother’s arms around his aunty’s middle. Younger in the photo than the boy was now. He wondered at that.
The boy sat on his aunty’s bed as his father undressed until his father said, ‘Get ready for bed, mate.’
The boy removed his nice shirt and belt and his too- baggy black pants. These funeral clothes had once been his father’s. When his father’s parents died his old clothes had arrived in a suitcase with a note and some books and a moth-eaten piece of cloth. The boy had never met his father’s parents and had never questioned their absence. The boy’s mother had kept these clothes for nice but there had never been a purpose for them and they had stayed in his closet until the day she died. The boy was sad she never saw him so well dressed.
As they put on their pyjamas the boy compared the two of them in the circular mirror that sat atop the dresser. He rubbed his hands over his face and imagined his father’s visage etched into his own. What would it be like to have a beard, to have it growing from the neck?
‘You did well today,’ his father said, drawing breath. ‘Not hard shovelling dirt, though, is it?’
Earlier, at her gravesite, the herd of mourners surround- ing the hole in the earth that held her coffin, his father had kicked at a pile of nearby dirt and stepped back. Arched his eyebrows at the boy. As everyone watched, the boy had begun to shovel. He had not felt up to the task and had not been prepared, and his doubt had slowed his shovelling. The sound the dirt made as it struck the wood like drumming fingers on a tree. The sun glowed against the surface of her coffin until he had covered it in thick clods and then it grew lifeless, dull, a feature of the landscape. None of the other men helped him at all, and in their stares and sorrow the boy sensed an importance about this act he could not fathom. When he had finished he dropped the shovel onto the nearby grass. The clanging sound like a slap to the ear. He looked to his father for forgiveness. Wordless disapproval instead in the man’s clenched fist, the way his mouth had creased. The boy felt he’d failed whatever test he’d been set.
The father now finished buttoning his pyjama shirt, tousled the boy’s hair. The boy climbed into bed and his father stood at the light switch and waited for the boy to settle beneath the blankets, burrowing in like a wombat, before he turned it off. Until the boy’s eyes adjusted he could only hear his father and not see him. An animal in the dark. The feather doona was too hot, so the boy kicked it off. The boy said, ‘I don’t know what to feel.’
His father grunted. Then, ‘Feel sad. You should feel sad.’
‘I do,’ the boy said. ‘But it doesn’t seem real.’ Another grunt. ‘Go to sleep.’
Silence for a time. The boy heard his father’s breathing soften and steady, which suggested slumber, but he ventured another question. ‘Are we going home tomorrow?’
A murmur of assent.
‘Why did Mum get buried here and not at home?’
‘This is what she wanted,’ his father said, and shifted in bed. ‘Go to sleep.’
‘Where will I be buried?’
‘Be buried wherever you want.’
‘What about you? Will you be buried here?’
‘I’m not a bloody Werner, mate,’ his father said. ‘Now go to sleep.’
So even when all three of them were dead – the boy, the father, the mother – they still would not be together. His father in one cemetery and his mother in another. And the boy, in the middle, having to choose.