A sobering look at recent history: ‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch
March 2, 2020
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.