The Runaway Punt is a vintage book published in 1976 but I want to talk about it here for a couple of reasons. I am reading some of our Australian IBBY Honour books at the moment in preparation for a special display in Canberra in October. I also wanted to re-read this book because in 1979 I used it with one of my first ever practice teaching classes and I have happy memories of reading this book with a small group of students sitting on the veranda outside their classroom. By coincidence the school where I read this book later became the school where I worked.
For nearly 50 years Mr Parrut, who is known as Polly, is happy to drive his punt across the Murray River in South Australia but he would dearly like a holiday. Unfortunately the engine cannot cope with any change. It happily goes rug-a-bug, rug-a-bug, rug-a-bug for Polly but when a relief driver comes it changes to rug-a-bong, rug-a-bong, rug-a-bong. A huge variety of people catch his punt because it is the only way to cross the river - the bridges are all miles away. Each morning he transports the school bus with their teacher, motor bikes, cars, trucks and "once he carried an elephant and a clown and a camel and a dwarf and a man on stilts on his punt, because a circus wanted to cross the river." People even ask to cross the river at night. He watches the seasons change and pelicans making nests and raising their young. In his heart, though, Polly wants to know more about the river. He longs to go down to the sea not just from side to side.
One morning when the river is running high, the school bus with the teacher and four children on board drive onto the punt along with Mr Fullagrab a businessman, MacWirr and MacGirr two men with bagpipes off the the Annual General Meeting of the Scottish Bagpipe-playing and Porridge Eating Club, and a farmer, Mr Bert Plowman with two cows and two calves in his truck. Perhaps it is the river, perhaps the ropes are old but whatever the reason there is a SNAP! and the punt goes "whirling and swirling away down the river."
One of the funny parts of this story comes when the two bagpipe players, who are not really Scotsmen, decide to play different tunes - sad and happy - sometimes at the same time. Here are some of the tunes they play :
- Over the sea to sky
- The dashing white sergeant
- Lady Fiona Macdonald's farewell to the Gallant Soldiers of Scotland ...
- When you've got no salt for your porridge, the sun doesn't shine so bright
- The fisherman's wedding breakfast was on a bright Midsummer day
- The dogs all barked and the cats meow'd on Sir Archibald's Wedding day
The punt eventually arrives at a small island. The cows move onto the land happy to have found grass, the children run around exploring and Mr Fullagrab rediscovers an old talent for wood carving. They can survive quite happily with porridge from the "Scotsmen", milk (from the cows), spoons carved by Mr Fullagrab and even a little salt. Eventually they are rescued but poor Polly does not want to go back to his life as a punt driver. Luckily there is a solution which leaves everyone happy.
I know this book will be difficult to find perhaps even impossible but I did enjoy reading it again after all these years and of course the illustrations by Robert Ingpen are amazing especially the one where we see again the famous pelicans (think of Storm Boy).
The other book in our school library by Michael Page and Robert Ingpen has long been a favourite of mine.