The Dig Tree / Sarah Murgatroyd (2002)

Sarah Murgatroyd wrote this brilliant book about Burke and Wills while dying of cancer in her thirties. She insisted the publisher not publicise her illness at all in the promotion of the book and she died the same year it was published. This brave refusal of self-pity comes through in the book; despite the adventures she must have had researching it, she stays on task, never consciously intruding as an author into her story.

And what a story. Her picture of the incompetent Royal Club’s decision to mount an expedition is a bizarre, fascinating one. The Burke expedition is full of the strangest details. On the first day, they only got as far as Richmond and Burke rode back to Melbourne that night to see the teenage singer who he was obsessed with perform.

I couldn’t put it down as mistake after mistake piles up. The picture of the small party reaching the north of Australia, but not quite seeing the ocean, stopping by estuary a few kilometres short, before heading back is a poignant one.

Burke and Wills’ bodies were retrieved months after their deaths and put on exhibition in Melbourne. Spectators took souvenirs from their bodies – teeth and hair.

This is the kind of book that makes me want to write non-fiction.