Written by Julie Dickson
Whether it’s beaten tracks hidden by overgrown dry grass that snake and curl into the unknown or open plains that go on and on allowing you to see far into the distance, the Australian outback is a remarkable place. And a notable backdrop. It becomes a character in itself in Lewis Woolston’s collection of short stories The Last Free Man and Other Stories.
The collection is loosely based on Woolston’s experiences. Working at various roadhouses in the outback, he’s heard some fascinating stories from some quirky people, and he’s also created some of his own. From getting bitten by a huntsman (I was afraid of huntsman spiders before I read this book, now I’m a thousand times more afraid) to meeting someone from a famous band, his stories depict the outback as a truly magical place. Woolston proves that it’s not just fantasy or sci-fi stories that transport you to another world, it’s stories with well-developed settings. The titular story, which also happens to be the first story of the collection, ‘The Last Free Man’was an excellent example of this as it immediately drew me in with its rich setting. Paired with the aspect of going on a road trip deep into the Australian outback, it excited me and satiated my wanderlust. I felt like I was right there, on the road trip, without leaving the house, which is a good option for an introvert like me. It’s also very fitting for the current situation with COVID-19, as we’re not allowed to physically travel anywhere.
Another standout story is ‘Driftwood’. It contains some of the more developed characters, who show up again later, and due to the length, I had more time to connect with them. It encapsulates the theme of drifting that is present throughout the collection, as it explores the freedom of drifting from place to place and coming into contact with different people. It also touches on the emptiness and loneliness of drifting and of having to start afresh and losing and creating new connections. I could relate to the loneliness of being in a new place and having to forge new connections as I moved from a small country town to Melbourne for uni.
A wide cast of characters appear in the collection. Most only show up for one story, but some are recurring. I liked seeing the recurring characters as we got to explore their depth. However, we only receive snapshots of other characters so we aren’t able to fully connect with them. They’re transient and drifting, just like the theme.
The stories vary between first person point of view and third person point of view and shift focus on the characters. I favoured the first-person point of view as it allowed me, as the reader, to connect with the other central protagonists. The author has a distinct true blue Aussie voice full of colloquial phrases that many people will be able to relate to. However, this may also be a little off-putting for readers who aren’t so familiar with the lingo. This book is sure to appeal to people who are fascinated with the Australian outback, whether they find it familiar and homey or new and exciting.
This short story collection caters to both those who don’t have a lot of time and those who do. The Australian outback is the perfect setting to escape to. You never know who you might meet or what adventures you’ll go on.