“He was beginning to feel that his escape from the zoo and his flight through the desert had been for nothing. Here he was, where Old Australia was supposed to be, a place where he was to have a home, friends, and others of his kind. Now he was finding that the only way he could even get a beer in this country was at gunpoint.”
Albert of Adelaide is a new entrant into the ranks of talking animal books. Howard L. Anderson’s fable is a charming tale of adventure with a brave and loyal hero who’s a platypus.
Albert, the platypus, escapes from the Adelaide Zoo and stows away on a northbound train, searching for a mythical land the other zoo animals spoke of, Old Australia. In Old Australia, animals don’t wear clothes, there are no zoos, and humans hunt them only with spears and boomerangs. On his journey, Albert meets a pyromaniac wombat, two drunken bandicoots, a piratical raccoon from California and a Tasmanian devil. He is tricked, taunted, and at one point caged again. Albert must deal with discrimination directed against him, but also acknowledge his own prejudices as he makes his way through this strange and vividly realized land.
Platypus are aquatic creatures and when the book opens, Albert, who has gotten off the train outside Alice Springs, is dying in the desert. He is rescued by Jack the Wombat. Jack also offers Albert clothes and explains a little bit about what life for animals is like out in the desert. When they visit a bar, Albert, who is a naive young platypus, is shocked to discover that he is the victim of some discrimination because they’ve never seen an animal like him. Events overtake them, and soon he and Jack are separated. Albert reaches a trading post called The Gates of Hell, where he is tricked by Bertram, a duplicitous wallaby, and Theodore his possum partner. While escaping he meets TJ, a raccoon who stowed away on a ship from San Francisco Bay.
Albert is a charming character, the dialogue is delightful, and many sections are funny. The book is somewhat episodic, which is not surprising since it grew out of a series of bedtime stories. The kangaroos, with their slogans and cannons, are the biggest bigots in the book, but there are other villains (the possum is scary-evil, while Bertram is funny-evil). Albert meets the Famous Muldoon, a Tasmanian devil, and, by being open-minded and questioning, learns to overcome his distrust of the dingos that are Muldoon’s companions. Albert’s mother was killed by a dog before Albert was captured for the zoo, and that memory is a powerful one for Albert. The scent of the dingos brings it back, but ultimately he learns to respect their culture.
Anderson slides cleanly from innocent to funny to sad. Bertram, who is a villain, is a witty one who you grow to hate. The relentless sloganeering of the ‘roos — “No Non-Marsupials!” is darkly funny. Along the way Anderson drops bits of adult wit.
Albert had observed that almost any friendship in Old Australia required the offer of alcohol.
Like any good fable, Albert of Adelaide can be read as an allegory. You can choose to see the whole book as a comment on discrimination, colonialism and immigration. A scene where the kangaroos, in their shakos and uniforms, have ambushed a dingo camp, killed the females and pups, and poisoned the watering hole, is shocking and a reminder of too many historical events. Albert, TJ, Jack and the Famous Muldoon are lively and complicated enough that they don’t have to be seen as mere “symbols” for anything, though. They are characters in their own right.
There are no female characters in the story unless you count Albert’s mother. This didn’t bother me, but since this is a book you’ll want to share with your children, this is something to be aware of. It could probably be a good starting place for a discussion about adventure stories generally.
I had some trouble with the world-building; for instance, TJ seems to have come from the gold rush period of California history, as do the kangaroos with their cannons and guns, but Albert has a soda bottle that evokes a later time period. This is a niggle, but it… niggled. Overall, though, this is a touching and enjoyable read. Sad and violent things happen in this story — the ending is very sad — so you’ll want to look through it before reading it with your child, but once you do that, I urge you and your kids to make the acquaintance of this brave and honest platypus.