I’m not sure when I realised that the practice of removing indigenous Australian children from their families (resulting in what is now known as the ‘Stolen Generations’ and the subject of the 2008 National Apology by then Prime Minister Keven Rudd) did not only happen way back in Australia’s history, but was still happening during my childhood in the 1960’s. The understanding that while I was growing up, safe and secure in a loving family, other children my age were in very different circumstances – grieving the loss of their parents and communities, frequently subjected to abuse and neglect in institutions charged with their care – appalled me, as I know it has many other Australians. This is not ‘history’ (locked in the pages of a text book about the past) but the lived experience of generations of Australian families.
The White Girl (Queensland University Press, 2019) is in part an exploration of this blot on Australia’s record. The reader experiences 1960’s rural Australian life through the eyes of Odette, a strong and loving grandmother to Sissy, who she has cared for since her daughter Lila left their town after giving birth to her baby. Odette does not know where Lila is and has had to get on with the task of raising a granddaughter, drawing on her considerable personal resources of inner strength, kindness and respect for her culture and ancestors.
But this was a time and place in which overt racism was part of the everyday for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, and Odette and Sissy experience the worst and the best of people as they go about their lives in their small community. The local policeman, Bill O’Shea, went to primary school with Odette and they were friends back then – but he is now an alcoholic reaching the end of his career and prefers to turn a blind eye to the goings-on in town, including the bullying and aggressive behaviour of Joe Kane and his eldest son Aaron, who takes against Odette and Sissy and threatens harm.
Then along comes a new police officer, Sergeant Lowe, who is determined to be the new broom the town needs and who takes seriously his responsibilities as the official guardian of the Aboriginal people in it. Unfortunately for Odette and Sissy, what this means is that he is set on removing Sissy from her grandmother’s care because in his view, an Aboriginal family is no place for a child to grow up, especially one who could ‘pass’ as white – like Sissy.
Matters are complicated by Odette’s health problems and she must find a way to protect Sissy from Lowe while dealing with her own uncertain future.
Along the way the reader is confronted by difficult truths about black/white relations at this time. For example, Lowe has a chart in his office on which he has listed each Aboriginal child in the local area, along with descriptions such as half-caste, quarter-caste and octoroon. Sissy is listed here, categorised as near white (p 115) Later, Odette reflects that:
…white people were fascinated with the skin colour of Aboriginal people, and what it might indicate…(She) understood that what this woman really wanted to know was how she’d inherited the white blood she carried and who it had come from. Odette didn’t know the answer to such questions. All she knew was that the women in her family loved all their children, regardless of the suffering and violence that had created them.p 146
Through Odette, Tony Birch suggests that the appalling and cruel behaviour exhibited by white people in authority over indigenous people, comes about because in order to carry out unjust government policies and laws, they needed to see Aboriginal people as ‘other’ and somehow at fault. Odette comments to her friend Jack:
Think if you were the police, Jack, knowing that one day you’d be told to go into a house and take kiddies away from their family. If you were to treat people with any decency, you couldn’t do that job. This fella giving us a hard time, he needs to be angry with us. Maybe even hate us. The only way they get by.p 164
The novel also deals with the so-called ‘exemption certificate’ that some Aboriginal people applied for. In essence, it was a document stating that they were no longer to be considered Aboriginal – which meant no longer subject to the laws and regulations governing every aspect of life for indigenous people under the Aboriginal Protection Act. Where you lived, if you were allowed to travel, who you might marry – these were all controlled by the relevant Protector or his delegates. Birch deals sensitively with what I am imagine has been a contested and difficult issue for many indigenous people, families and communities.
One of Odette’s friends answers Jack when he asks ‘What will we do, then?’ with the following:
What we’ve always done. Keep our heads down, think smart and get on the move again if the need comes.’p 247
What gets Odette through such difficulties are her recollections of a happy childhood, a loving marriage, and her connections to the natural world and the old people – her ancestors. She teaches Sissy about these things too, hoping that her granddaughter’s strong will and Odette’s love will guide her through life.
Each night, before Odette fell asleep, she asked the old people for help, that she would not lose Sissy as well.p 42
The White Girl is a beautiful book that deals sensitively with confronting issues of Australia’s past – and present.
For more information on Tony Birch and his books, see the UQP website.
For everyone who is still awake.Dedication by author in Bruny, published 2019 by Allen & Unwin
That dedication by the author is a good heads-up to what this novel is: part thriller, part study of family, part love letter to a place, and also, a manifesto against the onslaught of political and economic movements that support power, wealth and progress at any cost.
Set on Bruny Island, just off the Tasmanian coast near Hobart, the novel explores several themes. A main one is progress and its price, especially for small, relatively isolated communities such as those on the island, and Tasmania more generally. Astrid, the main character, is a Tasmanian with strong links to Bruny, who has established a life in New York and a career as a conflict resolution expert, working for the United Nations in trouble spots around the world. When a massive new bridge joining Bruny Island to the bigger island of Tasmania is blown up just before its completion, she is called on to help by her twin brother – who just happens to be the Premier of the state and leader of a conservative political party.
Astrid’s first task is to meet and talk with as many of the ‘stakeholders’ in the bridge project as possible – including the sizeable group of locals who are bitterly opposed to its construction. She muses that:
I was sure Tasmanians would resist…with everything they had, despite the economic advantages. Because to live on an island isn’t just a location. It’s a sense of belonging. It’s history and sacrifice. It’s a choice to be remote. It’s a kind of metaphor…
When you settle for Tassie, you’ve settled for less in some ways; less of what matters out there, more of what matters here.p 254
and p567 (ebook version)
What she discovers is much more complex than it appears, crossing international and government borders and quite a few surprises and shocks. To outline more of the plot would be a spoiler, so I won’t say any more about that here.
The time frame is set in the very near future so everything is recognisable – so much so that I had to remind myself that the novel was published last year, because there were several references to occurrences that mirrored very recent events within Australia or the wider world and which rang uncannily true: epidemics on cruise ships, scandals about government pork-barrelling, unprecedented natural disasters and weather events, to name a few.
The novel canvasses other themes along with the geopolitical ones. Relationships – intimate, sibling, parental, collegial, political – are all examined within the story of the island and its bridge. I especially loved the examination of family – what it means to belong, how we are always part of a family even if we have a life elsewhere. The character of Angus, Astrid’s elderly father who suffers from dementia, is both poignant and wise, though he can no longer communicate except in quotes from his beloved Shakespeare – quotes which are unerringly apt. My favourite is when he quotes Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown (from Henry IV Part 2) at the moment his children are discussing fraught political and public relations issues.
Other timely themes which emerge are to do with the rapid pace of technology and automation, and the moral choices that must be made even as the world drives forward towards new technologies and ways of production. For example:
The people who owned the robots, who employed the techies ignoring in-bound traffic, those who could afford high-protein, low-carb medical care and organic sex, they were going to be sitting pretty in their driverless cars. They would be the ones the car would save when it had to choose between the wellbeing of the driver and the life of the pedestrian crossing the street.p 966
This is Astrid’s musing, though I suspect it is the author’s viewpoint also. A few times, I did feel that the narrative veered into ‘telling’ (via Astrid’s thoughts and dialogue) which were mostly condemning of those in power – not that I disagreed with most of these views – just that they occasionally felt a little out of place in a novel.
I especially resonated with the word solistalgia which appears about a third of the way through – it apparently means ‘a deep melancholia for the assault the world is experiencing.’ (p465) I checked for this one in both Macquarie and Oxford Concise Dictionaries with no luck, though did find it on Wikipedia. It’s a great word, don’t you think? Earlier, Astrid thinks to herself that:
There ought to be a name for the kind of overwhelm that happens when you realise there are too many things to fight. If it’s not environment, then it’s human rights. If it’s not human rights, it’s women’s rights. Law and order. Gun control. Invasive species. Water pollution. Tax reform. Refugee policy. Education. Health care. The list is endless.p442
Perhaps solistalgia is the name she was looking for. For anyone who is or has been an activist on any or all of the issues listed above – well, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and melancholic about the tasks that still lie ahead.
This novel does not end on a melancholic note, though it is not a ‘happy ever after’ ending either. Instead, it examines what happens when a small group of people make a choice for what they believe to be the right reasons. And how individuals, families, and communities can continue to push on within the face of challenges from multiple sources. Bruny is a thought provoking read that does not have all the answers but certainly asks the right questions.