Book Club: Robert Drewe’s Nimblefoot delves into the life of ‘Australia’s first international sporting hero’

Nimble foot

Robert Drewe (Hamish Hamilton, $32.99)

Robert Drewe Nimblefoot
camera iconRobert Drewe Nimblefoot Recognition: delivered

A few years ago Robert Drewe was shown an 1866 portrait of a boy named Johnny Day, which is in the collection of the National Library of Australia. Although the renowned WA writer – author of titles such as The Shark Net and The Bodysurfers and longtime columnist for The West Australian – had never heard of Day, he was fascinated by the story of his achievements as a world champion competitive walker and later a jockey, who won the Melbourne Cup – all before June 15.

The appeal is easy to see: Day was, writes Drewe, “Australia’s first international sporting hero and possibly the youngest world champion of all time,” who excelled in the then-popular pedestrian sport, winning the trophy on a horse named All, Nimblefoot. Yet Drewe writes that “research into his life following his Melbourne Cup victory has been inconclusive. How strange, I thought, that the famous hiker and rider left no cultural footprint.”

Drewe’s latest book, also called Nimblefoot, aims to remedy that, boldly combining historical truth with invention to fill in the very big gaps in the official record, from Day’s childhood as a butcher’s son in Ballarat to his own Rise to sporting prominence. Meanwhile, the mystery of his life after winning a horse race becomes a larger-than-life tale of a young man on the run after witnessing a murder in a brothel, gaining narrative momentum as the novel follows its subject’s adventures during the colonial era introduces Southwest of WA.

Nimblefoot alternates between first-person and third-person narration and integrates excerpts from newspaper reports and letters. Nimblefoot evokes a sense of life pieced together from scraps of archival footage, even as Drewe blurs the line between fact and imagination. The result is a playful, meandering novel whose lively vignettes offer a lavishly detailed and often idiosyncratic portrait of a historical figure previously lost to common memory.


Louise Omer (Scribe, $29.99)

Holy Lady of Louise Omer
camera iconHoly Lady of Louise Omer Recognition: delivered

Before Louise Omer’s marriage collapsed, she was “a wife, a Pentecostal, a minister.” After the relationship failed, she began to question not only these roles, but also whether “women can belong to a patriarchal religion.” Omer is an honest and committed leader in the feminist-minded spiritual quest that followed as she embarked on a journey that would take her from Australia to Ireland, Mexico, Morocco and beyond with just $500. Interwoven with this is the story of her journey into the religion after meeting a charismatic school pastor as a teenager in search of “someone who knew I was special, who knew I was destined to be extraordinary.” .


Sophie Cunningham & Anil Tortop (Albert Street, $19.99)

Pinball & Finnegan by Sophie Cunningham and Anil Tortop
camera iconPinball & Finnegan by Sophie Cunningham and Anil Tortop Recognition: delivered

After an oil spill threatened the penguin population on Phillip Island near Melbourne in 2001, volunteers sent more than 100,000 hand-knit penguin-sized sweaters to help with the rehabilitation process. (Wearing the sweaters not only kept the birds warm while their feathers were oily, but also prevented them from preening themselves and thus ingesting the oil while waiting to be cleaned.) The story has acclaimed author Sophie Inspired Cunningham to write her second children’s book, illustrated by Anil Tortop, about two penguins named Flipper and Finnegan who find themselves in a similar situation. “I hope this book will help parents and children see how wonderful these animals are, and their autonomy – but also how humans need to help animals when they are vulnerable,” says Cunningham.


Polly Phillips (Simon & Schuster, $29.99)

Polly Phillips reunion
camera iconPolly Phillips reunion Recognition: delivered

British-born, Perth-based journalist-turned-novelist Polly Phillips follows her 2021 debut, My Best Friend’s Murder, with this psychological thriller about class, privilege and power, inspired in part by her student days at Cambridge. Told in two timelines, it revolves around the protagonist Emily, a full-time mother of twins whose own years at the famous university came to an implied early and traumatic end, leaving her “with nothing but fear and shame” and ruining plans for a legal career. When she and her husband Nick return to their Cambridge residential college for their 15-year reunion, Emily is determined to avenge it with former so-called friends, whom she describes as “the three architects of my downfall.”

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