• Books and reading,  History

    ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yoval Noah Harari

    While we homo sapiens might feel pleased to be the species that has seemingly evolved to ‘rule the world’, this book should give pause for thought.

    It’s a sweeping story of our history: how we evolved and separated from other human species such as the Neanderthals, why we have paid a price for the development of our relatively large brains, how the ‘cognitive revolution’ distinguished our species from other animals (and what we have done with this advantage since), how and why myths such as gods, race, nationalities, money and human rights were created.

    There are some ideas that I am certain would be controversial to some, including:

    • the ‘agricultural revolution’ actually resulted in humankind spending more time and effort feeding itself than in hunter-gatherer communities
    • it is possible that, far from grains such as wheat or rice being ‘domesticated’ by humans, it could be the other way around: that these grains trained humans to spend huge amounts of labour tending them, allowing them to become masters of the grain world.
    • the three unifying forces of humankind have been money, empire and religion, and of these:
    • capitalism is the most successful religion invented by humans, requiring high levels of trust to operate effectively.

    Sapiens is definitely a thought-provoking book. Always interested in the ‘back story’ in how things came to be as they are, I found the historic elements deeply fascinating.

    The last section of the book ventures into territory which for me was far less comfortable, involving scary questions about the future of humankind, as technological developments seemingly outpace our collective ability to predict where they might lead or to place conditions on their use.

    First published in 2015, the questions in this book are now more relevant than ever, surrounded as we are by the growth of cyborg, genetic and other technologies which could conceivably lead to the end of homo sapien and even devolution into a new species.

    More questions than answers; but perhaps a book of this nature needs to raise issues that can’t be easily addressed. If the idea is to make readers sit up and take notice, to think more deeply about the rapid pace of change, and to appreciate our collective past as a species, Sapiens achieves this very well indeed.

    Books like this should be read by scientists, ethicists, teachers, medical professionals and legislators, because these are the people holding the reins of our collective future.

    Sapiens was published by Vintage (an imprint of Penguin Books.)
    I listened to the audiobook version, also released in 2015 and read in English by Derek Perkins.

  • Books and reading

    ‘Question 7’ by Richard Flanagan

    As I began to think about describing this book, I struggled to come up with a name for its form. Is it memoir? Non-fiction? Narrative non-fiction? Something else entirely…or all of the above?

    The publisher, Penguin Books Australia, offered this:

    At once a love song to his island home and to his parents, this hypnotic melding of dream, history, place and memory is about how our lives so often arise out of the stories of others and the stories we invent about ourselves.

    Penguin Random House

    Readers of two of Flanagan’s earlier works, Death of a River Guide (1994) and The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013) will recognise two occurrences referred to in this, his latest work. One is his near-drowning when he was a river guide on Tasmania’s wild Franklin River. The other is his father’s ordeal as a Japanese prisoner of war, first on the Burma ‘Death Railway’ and later, as a slave worker in a Japanese coal mine.

    These traumatic experiences are woven together with reflections on his own childhood in rural Tasmania in the 1960s and 70s, his family (especially his parents), Tasmania’s beginnings as a far-flung outpost of the British Empire and the resulting attempt to exterminate the island’s First Peoples, and the historic seeds of the process of scientific conjecture, discovery and work that culminated in the explosion of the first atomic bombs over Japan, which finally brought World War II to an end.

    On this last point, there is quite a lot made of the romance between the famous (and married) author HG Wells with another writer, Rebecca West in the early 1900’s, as Flanagan follows the normally unseen path that led from an affair between writers to the spark of an idea that resulted in the atom bomb.

    Unlikely? No more so than any other ‘coincidences’ of life. This author’s genius allows his readers to follow a wandering pathway between events, people and places, and see them as he does. As a reader, I had to trust that this was a writer who knew what he was doing, who could guide me along a seemingly disconnected series of events and thoughts and bring me through to the other side. In the end it all made perfect sense, even within the context of the chaos and ultimate meaninglessness of so much of the world.

    The result is like an artwork: a tightly bound, circular structure in which each apparently disparate element affects and shapes all the others.

    And the title?

    It comes from a quote by Anton Checkov in which he is sending up the kind of school mathematics problems I always loathed:

    Wednesday, June 17, 1881, a train had to leave station A at 3am in order to reach station B at 11pm; just as the train was about to depart, however, an order came that the train had to reach station B by 7pm. Who loves longer, a man or a woman?

    Question 7, loc 9%

    There are almost unbearably poignant moments, especially those concerning his parents; sadness for the lost world of his childhood; anger at certain cynical aspects of the publishing world, deep respect for the written word combined with a wry understanding that the words of a book are never the book, the soul of it is everything. (loc 58%)

    There are so many snippets of prose that are beautiful or brilliant, too many to make choosing a quote an easy task. Here is just one:

    My mother and father had a similar gift, of stitching together torn fragments into some harmony amidst the melee of daily life. My mother and my father in their stories and jokes, in their generosity and kindness to others, asserted the necessary illusion their lives might mean something in the endless tumult of this meaningless universe. For them to live, love had to exist, the love they valued above all other things; they lived that love and they fought for that love and defended that love. With the passing of time this illusion became their hard-won truth. It was a form of magic and they were magicians. In my vanity, I had always thought of them as naive. Only now writing these words do I finally see the naivete was all mine.

    Question 7 (ebook version) loc. 67%

    Question 7 was published by Penguin Random House in October 2023.

  • Books and reading,  History

    He put Australia on the map: ‘Flinders’ by Grantlee Kieza

    Imagine being proposed to by letter, then marrying in a small and hasty ceremony, acting on your new husband’s assurances that you would be joining him on his next voyage on a British naval ship; only to learn that you would not, in fact, be granted permission to do so. You bid a sad farewell to your beloved, having been married a matter of weeks. Off he sails, to explore and chart a vast southern continent on the other side of the globe.

    You do not see your husband again for nearly a decade.

    This is what happened to Ann Chappelle, who married Matthew Flinders in Lincolnshire, England, in 1801. To say that her new husband was impulsive and careless, as Kieza describes him, is an understatement. However it is also true that he was a man of his age, ambitious, curious about the world, passionate about science and the sea, keen to venture into the unknown. And there is no question that he adored his wife.

    Reading this detailed and vivid account of the life of an extraordinary figure of Australia’s early colonial history, I discovered some personal links with my own family history. One is that he came from the same part of England from where my paternal ancestors migrated in the mid-1800s, the marshy fens of Lincolnshire. His lifelong mentor, the botanist Joseph Banks, was also born there.

    From an early age Matthew wanted more than a small life in a small village, working as a physician like his father. He was attracted to the sea and inspired by the adventures of Captain James Cook and Banks on the Endeavour, and he joined the navy when he was sixteen.

    He first served under another famous figure, William Bligh, experiencing terrifying battles against the French, voyages to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji, through the treacherous reefs of the Torres Strait, to Jamaica and then back to England. In most of those places there were encounters with the original inhabitants, as well as astonishing new sights, sounds, smells and foods, and Matthew developed his charting skills which would become such an important part of his work. It is hard to overstate how much these experiences would have affected a youngster from a small, quiet corner of England.

    He was to have command of his own ships of exploration: most famously the tiny Tom Thumb, on which (along with surgeon George Bass) he explored areas around the Sydney settlement and beyond. Later they circumnavigated Tasmania and proved it was an island, separate from the mainland of ‘Terra Australis.’

    Subsequent voyages took him to parts of the continent still relatively remote today: up the Queensland coast to the furthest reaches of Cape York Peninsula and the islands of the Torres Strait, across the Gulf of Carpentaria to Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and around the southern coastline of the continent. On these voyages he was accompanied by the famous Trim, the black-and-white cat who became Matthew’s beloved and loyal companion for many years.

    He experienced shipwreck, sickness, injury, thirst and near starvation. None of these deterred his passion for life at sea and for exploration.

    Everywhere he ventured he created charts and kept detailed notes of his observations. It’s difficult for us in today’s connected world to understand that to Europeans at that time, ‘Terra Australis’ was largely a mystery – thousands of kilometers of coastline and a vast interior which was – what? Desert? An inland sea? A network of rivers? No Europeans knew.

    Another significant feature of Matthew’s experiences was the help given to him and his crews by the indigenous people they encountered. Interactions included warning shots from muskets and some occasions that came close to outright armed conflict; but many times the British mariners had help in the form of fresh water, guidance through difficult country, or exchanges of European goods for food.

    Indeed, it is significant that one of the first times the word ‘Australians’ was used, it was to describe First Nations people near what is now called Port Lincoln in South Australia.

    And what of Ann, his wife in far-away Lincolnshire?

    The couple exchanged letters, full of longing and (on Ann’s part at least) occasional exasperation. The wives of British sea captains had to resign themselves to long periods of separation, though for Ann, this was further prolonged, when on his homeward voyage in 1803, Matthew put in to the French-controlled island of Mauritius for emergency repairs and reprovisioning, only to be placed under guard as a potential British spy. Because news from Europe took so long to reach British colonial outposts, Britain and France were again at war, but Matthew had not known of it.

    He was to spend seven long years in captivity of varying degrees of discomfort, before finally being released in 1810.

    He and Ann were at last reunited and set up house together, Ann giving birth to a daughter at the relatively old age (for a first-time mother in the 1800s) of nearly forty-one. Matthew’s health, though, was badly affected by his trials at sea. And sadly, he had to battle with the Admiralty to be given the pay owing him while he’d been imprisoned by the French, and for due recognition for his work in mapping Australia.

    Matthew Flinders died in 1814 from renal failure following years of kidney and bladder problems. He was only forty years old.

    He led an extraordinary life, voyaging through seas and territories previously unknown to Europeans, experiencing many dangers and hardships. He adopted the name Australia for the southern continent he spent so much of his time exploring and he urged the authorities to do likewise.

    The aspect of Flinders’ personality that I most admire, though, is that he was a man whose greatest wish was that his work, his charts and discoveries, would be used for the benefit of science and the greater knowledge of humanity in general, not for warfare or domination. In this, of course, he was disappointed, but he lived his life in the service and pursuit of knowledge.

    Flinders is a finely researched and well-written account of a fascinating figure of Australian colonial history, the man who – quite literally – put Australia on the map.

    Flinders was published by HarperCollins in November 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    2024 Challenges

    Once again I am signing up to reading challenges for the coming year, as a way to add to my reading diet and explore new areas of knowledge and understanding.

    In 2024, I will take part in these challenges:

    • Non Fiction Reading Challenge
      My goal is to become a ‘Non Fiction Nibbler’, reading 6 books from any 6 of the 12 categories (details about the challenge, hosted by Book’d Out, here)
    • Historical Fiction Reading Challenge
      Of course! I’m aiming for the ‘Mediaeval’ level of 15 books.
      This one is hosted by the Intrepid Reader. Sign up and find out more here.
    • Books by First Nations authors
      This one is my own personal challenge, not an official one. I’m aiming for 6 books by Australian (or other) First Nations authors.
    • Cloak and Dagger Reading Challenge
      Hosted by Carol’s Notebook (check out the blog here)
      This is a new one for me; I’m having a go for fun, as I do enjoy a good crime/mystery read.
      The challenge also includes thriller/suspense/true crime books.
      I’m aiming to become an ‘Amateur Sleuth’ by reading between 5 – 15 books in these genres.

    So, that’s my reading sorted. Oh, and add the book group choices already programmed for the year, plus ones I review for publishers…I’ll be behind a book somewhere if you need me.


    Have you joined a reading challenge or reading group, and if so, did it help you to expand your reading repertoire?

  • Books and reading,  History

    Why I am a feminist: ‘Normal Women’ by Philippa Gregory

    Where to begin with this huge, sweeping non-fiction book? Perhaps with the title. In an interview I heard with the author (best known for her historical fiction featuring British royalty like the Plantagenet and Tudor women) she said that she wanted to write about the full gamut of women across 900 years of British history – from royal and aristocratic to peasant women. Because, at the times in which they lived, these were ‘normal’ women, doing what queens, noblewomen, tradeswomen and artisans and peasant farming women did.

    I found that a compelling argument; more so since reading this grand work of research and narrative.

    Why am I interested in the history of British women?

    Apart from the fact that I inherited my fascination with history from my mother; as an Australian woman whose ancestors were almost all from England, Ireland or Scotland, the history of Britain and its women is also my history.

    Also, my interest in family history is particularly focused on the women in my family tree, the people about whom it is most difficult to find information and records that extend beyond birth and baptism, marriage and babies, death and burial. I want to know what kind of lives they lived, what their likely interests or preoccupations might have been, what big and small events shaped them.

    Ms Gregory sums up her motivation for writing the book as follows:

    What we read as a history of our nation is a history of men, as viewed by men, as recorded by men.
    Is 93.1 per cent of history literally ‘His Story’ because women don’t do anything? Are women so busy with their Biology that they have no time for History, like strict timetable choices – you can’t do both?…
    Women are there, making fortunes and losing them, breaking the law and enforcing it, defending their castles in siege and setting off on crusade; but they’re often not recorded, or mentioned only in passing by historians, as they were just normal women living normal lives, not worthy of comment.

    Normal Women pp1-2

    The book begins with the Norman invasion in 1066 and ends at the modern era, in the 1990’s. In between it examines the lives of women over a range of topic areas, including: religion, violence, marriage, women loving women, women and the vote, prostitution, health, education, work, enslaved women and slave owners, single women, ideas about the ‘nature of women’, rape, sport, wealth and poverty, protest…It’s a huge expanse of information drawn from a wide range of sources.

    In the process the real reason for the beginnings of the gender pay gap is revealed; also how the patriarchal systems of law and inheritance were imported and formalised by the Norman invaders; how accusations of rape were dealt with in the legal system and how this barely changed over centuries; when businesswomen and tradeswomen gained admission to important guilds and how they were later excluded; how a queen became the first woman to publish a book in English in her own name; how women worked together and also against each other; a sombre roll call of women martyrs who died for their religious beliefs during the early modern period and another of women murdered by husband, boyfriend or family member in 2019.

    The author’s skill is evident in the way she has presented a mind-boggling array of historical facts and themes in a compelling narrative, with snippets of the names and stories of women across different circumstances that help to bring them to life for the reader.

    And there are some Oh My God moments. Here are some that stayed with me:

    • Sixteen year old Emma de Gauder holding out against William I (aka the Conqueror) at a Norwich castle for three months and later going on the First Crusade with her husband.
    • Roman Catholic churches in the eight century hosting same-sex marriages (women marrying women) which were entered in the parish records in the usual way.
    • The old Anglo-Saxon word for ‘wife’ meant peace-weavers and ‘spinster’ originally meant the actual occupation (a woman who spun yarn.)
    • The 1624 Infanticide Act meant that women who could not prove that a baby had been stillborn would hang. There was no assumption of innocence and no accusation levelled at the father of the baby.
    • The sentence of death by burning at the stake was still being applied for crimes such as the murder of a husband in the 1700’s. It mattered not how violent, cruel or abusive the husband was. Husband-killing was seen as ‘petty treason’.
    • Forceps for difficulties in childbirth were invented in the 1700’s but kept a secret for three generations in order to increase the profits of the medical family concerned.
    • Housewives living in poverty were blamed for poor sanitation and high rates of disease and child mortality.
    • Syphilis was thought to occur spontaneously in the bodies of promiscuous women (read: prostitutes) and passed on to men.
    • Rape in marriage was thought to be impossible as their wedding vows meant that women gave consent to sexual acts from that time on.
    • The widespread belief (even into the early twentieth century) that women would become infertile if they were more highly educated: to quote from the book, a statement by a neurologist – If the feminine abilities were developed to the same degree as those of the make, her material organs would suffer, and we should have before us a repulsive and useless hybrid. (p460)
    • Male students at Oxford University were so appalled at the proposal that female graduates should be awarded their degrees on completion of their course of study – in 1948 – that they attacked the college residence of women students.
    • and so on and so on…

    I dare any woman to read this book and not be thankful for feminism and the changes it has helped to bring about. But – it also highlights the fact that there is a long, long way to go before we can truly say we have achieved genuine equality for women of all classes, races, religious beliefs and family situations.

    Normal Women is published by HarperCollins in November 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy.

  • Books and reading

    2023: My reading year

    In 2023, my total number of books came to 45 this year, a few more than the previous one. (And I may have missed a title or two in my count.)

    Of these, 11 were non fiction titles, meaning I exceeded my #ReadNonFicChal goal of 6 books, which I am pleased about. Five of these were history (of course!); three biographies (though to be fair, they were all biographies of historical figures, so could count in both categories); two memoirs and one on a medical/health topic.

    Standout non fiction reads? David Marr’s Killing for Country for its truth-telling, and Grantlee Kieza’s The Remarkable Mrs Reiby for its story of a truly remarkable woman who quite possibly rubbed shoulders with an ancestress of mine in early colonial Sydney.

    My historical fiction reads this year numbered 18: no surprise there as it is a favourite genre of mine. My goal for the #histficreadingchallenge for 2023 was 15, so I easily met that one.

    And a personal challenge of mine is to read books by First Nations authors. I have read 4 this year: The Visitors by Jane Harrison, Reaching Through Time by Sheila Bostock, We Come With This Place by Debra Dank, and Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko. All great reads in different ways; I highly recommend them. It’s wonderful that there is now so much First Nations writing being published; it is hard to choose just one to recommend as my annual ‘pick’ for the book group I am part of.

    I plan to participate in reading challenges both online and of my own making again in 2024. It’s a fun way to be a little more conscious of my reading choices and to incorporate some new authors or topics in my reading diet.

    I wish you all a happy reading year ahead, good health and a happy 2024.

    Photo by Abhinav Sharma at Pexels
  • Books and reading

    Questioning truth: ‘Reckless’ by Marele Day

    I fell into this book, in the sense of immediately feeling comfortable and keen to read on. The opening pages are like an invitation to come into the author’s lounge room, have a cup of tea and hear her stories.

    This memoir is a collection of stories from author Marele Day’s life, from a childhood of treatments and operations for wandering eye; first romantic relationship and crippling grief when her love is killed in a car accident; to spur-of-the-moment (reckless?) decisions made, which lead her in very unexpected and sometimes unwelcome situations.

    We can probably all look back to our youth and wonder at some of the choices we made then. In this book, the author shares her own What was I thinking? moments. Prominent among them is a voyage by catamaran from Darwin to Sri Lanka, with a skipper and crew mates she had only just met. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as the route covers territory known for pirates, and with few places to safely refuel and replenish supplies, they end up in danger on more than one occasion.

    Why did she do it? There was the sense of invincibility that comes with young adulthood. There was a need to do something very different, to break out from the grief that threatened to imprison her after her lover’s shocking death.  And there was a need to be Elsewhere, to Go with the flow.

    The trip, in spite (or because of) its dangers and hardships, resulted in a friendship with Jean Kay, the catamaran’s owner; a connection which lasted thirty years and crossed continents and oceans. On that fateful voyage together in the 1980s, she realises that there is a lot about Jean that is mysterious, contradictory, or hidden from view.

    Later, she decides to dig deeper into his life, in particular one episode in his chequered career: a heist that saw Jean and three accomplices steal millions from an account owned by one of France’s richest businessmen.

    After that, Jean spent years on the run from authorities, living and travelling under an assumed name. In tracing the events surrounding the robbery, Marele begins to doubt what she thinks she knows about her friend and his past.

    In the process she must interrogate her own experiences, beliefs and values.

    The pages of this book held many moments of recognition for me. The foolishness of our younger selves; moments of quiet rebellion (Jean’s school photo conjured a memory of myself aged 17, annoyed by the photographer’s instructions to students to fold hands the same way, deliberately crossing my hands the ‘wrong’ way in my lap.) The need for regular doses of solitude and quiet. A shared appreciation of words and their power:

    Some words were so potent they could only be whispered, matchsticks that ignited fires. I had no idea what a divorce was, but if Aunty Marjorie was getting one it must have been something special. When I whispered the word to the hydrangea bushes near my grandmother’s front steps, it conjured up a mighty wind. I felt the way God must have felt creating the world. All God had to do was say the word and it was so.

    Reckless p86

    My beliefs about an afterlife are also similar:

    The only certainty I feel on these long walks is this: that our bodies, our ashes, are returned to the earth, to nurture new life. All of us, every living creature, becomes part of the ongoing whole. This is enough.

    Reckless p307

    Reckless is a very readable mix of true-crime investigative writing, personal memoir, and philosophy. It’s like an afternoon spent in the company of an engaging friend who has lived an interesting life and met some memorable people, and is a gifted storyteller into the bargain.

    Reckless was published by Ultimo Press in May 2023.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Connections: ‘The Remarkable Mrs Reibey’ by Grantlee Kieza

    I’d added Grantlee Kieza’s biography of the woman on the Australian $20 note to my ‘Must Read’ list from the moment I heard about it.

    The reason?

    Apart from the obvious (my abiding interest in Australian history and especially women’s history), I have three points of connection with the subject, Mary Reibey:
    1. She hailed originally from near Manchester in England, where my ancestor Elizabeth Lee was also born and raised,
    2. Like another of my ancestors, Mary’s crime which had her transported to Australia was the theft of a horse, and
    3. She was a contemporary of yet another ancestor, Jane Longhurst. Like Mary, Jane was an emancipated convict in early colonial Sydney who ‘made good’, managing business affairs and a large family within the male-dominated world of nineteenth century Sydney.

    Mary showed her redoubtable spirit from an early age, running away from a position as maid in a boarding school and in a flight of youthful fantasy, stealing a horse which she thought would be her ticket to a financially independent life.

    Of course she was discovered, arrested and tried for the crime; at first receiving the death sentence, later commuted to transportation to the penal colony of NSW. The startling thing about her time in gaol was that she’d been dressed as a boy – and she managed to keep her sex hidden from her male cellmates in a crowded prison! In my view that would take some chutzpah, not to mention ingenuity.

    She arrived in the colony full of trepidation as to what life in this frightening place might have in store for a youngster just fifteen years old.

    The author paints a fascinating and vivid picture of convict life in Sydney and Parramatta : housing, clothing, rations, and living and working conditions, along with the many larger-than-life characters that peopled the early days of the colonial period.

    The class system of Britain was transported here along with their unwanted criminals, and this is seen in attitudes by free settlers towards the convicts.

    Also, people in authority struggled to understand many behaviours of the convicts; why did they make such poor choices (such as getting drunk and fighting) which they must know would result in punishment? To middle class eyes this was inexplicable. Why would people jeopardise their futures in this way? To convicts, most of whom came from dire circumstances, having a good time while one could grab it was entirely sensible. Who knew when the next catastrophe could strike? You could die of a disease, accident or violence tomorrow. May as well enjoy tonight while you could.

    Mary, however, kept her head down and out of trouble. She married Tom Reibey, a free settler with an entrepreneurial bent, who was involved in trade and real estate. They had a large family together, but Tom nominated his wife to manage the business dealings during his long absences from the colony on trading voyages. She was wife, mother, and trusted co-manager of the family’s business affairs.

    After her husband’s death, Mary continued with the various business interests, shipping and trading, buying, selling and leasing real estate, amassing an even greater fortune.

    She is the ‘remarkable’ Mrs Reibey because all this activity was at a time when work options for women were severely curtailed and no women were expected to see the inside of a board room or business negotiation. Much to the surprise of her fellow settlers, ‘Mrs Reibey’ proved to be a shrewd negotiator, driving a hard bargain, with a nose for the next opportunity. This was how one survived – even thrived – in the cut throat world of the colony.

    I got a thrill from seeing my ancestor, Jane Roberts (nee Longhurst) mentioned along with Mary in the section describing the formation of the Bank Of New South Wales – the first bank in the colony. Jane and Mary were among a handful of women investors in that early bank, much to the surprise and confusion of their male counterparts, as the concept of women investors was a foreign one.

    There are moments that made me smile, such as Mary answering a charge by a debtor that she was ‘no lady’ by hitting him over the head with her parasol!

    There are also tender, heartwarming moments in the book, as when Mary fulfills a long-nursed ambition to make a return visit to her homeland, with emotional reunions with family members in the ‘old country.’ I found myself wondering how reunions between my convict and immigrant ancestors may have played out, should any of them had the wish and the resources to return to England.

    The Remarkable Mrs Reibey is a comprehensive and engrossing portrayal of a colonial women who surely deserves her spot on the $20 note. Her portrait, depicting a grandmotherly round-faced woman with spectacles and a lace cap, belies the adventurous and headstrong spirit of the younger Mary, with the endurance and smarts to not only survive, but thrive, in a colonial environment that was well and truly stacked against women.

    The Remarkable Mrs Reibey was published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2023.



  • Books and reading,  History

    Revelatory: ‘Reaching Through Time – Finding my Family’s Stories’ by Shauna Bostock

    The photograph on the cover of Shauna Bostock’s story of researching her ancestors is indicative of the book itself: compelling.

    I am going to begin my discussion of the book with this: if you are a family historian or at all interested in Australian history, this book is a must-read.

    The author, a Bundjalung woman who began researching her family story for a PhD in Aboriginal history, has skillfully woven together various strands of her exploratory processes in archives, libraries, and interviews, with the stories of her forebears. In doing so, she has created a vivid and multi-layered picture of Australian history, especially the experiences of First Nations Australians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

    There is so much in this book that made me stop, turn pages back and forth to the meticulous referencing, to the photographs, or to previous pages. As someone passionate about uncovering my own family stories from the past, there were many moments of recognition in Ms Bostock’s research journey: the thrill of discovering a previously unknown fact; the way that serendipity or fate so often plays a part in the process; the coincidences of meeting someone or stumbling upon a document that hold the key to the very nugget of information you are seeking. The indescribable feeling of viewing an archival document from the past that tells you something about your ancestor, or an old photo that brings them to life.

    As any family historian will tell you: family history research requires patience AND perseverance.

    Especially so in this case, as Ms Bostock found when she experienced road blocks to accessing important archival information, and evidence of the mind-numbing level of bureaucracy that Aboriginal people have endured since colonisation.

    The book begins with the shocking revelation that the non-indigenous ancestors in her family tree were descended from English slave traders – a huge irony given that one of them arrived in Australia as a convict, having been arrested on slavery charges in the late 1700’s.

    From there, the narrative traverses key parts of the colonisation experience for First Nations: frontier violence and killings; theft of land, livelihood, spiritual and cultural connections; the precarious nature of life on Aboriginal reserves; the deceit and hypocrisy of the various government bodies set up to ‘protect’ and control Aboriginal people and the enduring damages inflicted through practices such as the forced removal of children from their homes and families.

    rural and urban Also looming large are the ugliness of apartheid-like segregation and racism within communities; indenture of young children into service of white families or farms (often akin to slavery); increasing control and surveillance of every aspect of Aboriginal lives.

    I could go on.

    What distinguishes this book is the author’s research and how she has woven together the experiences of the colonisers and the colonised – including of course her own family members:

    To use a photographic analogy…I felt like a photographer adjusting the focus of the lens. I have ‘zoomed in’ with a microcosmic focus on the individuals and the reserve/mission space – and then I have ‘zoomed out’ to capture the macrocosmic bureaucracy of the Australian Government’s Aborigines Protection Board.

    Reaching through History p174

    There are stories of defiance and resistance as well, which the author rightly points out are important for all generations of Aboriginal people to know about.

    I enjoyed the later chapters where she outlines the many creative and artistic ways in which her family members have expressed defiance and worked for change.

    On a personal note, I had a little thrill to realise that several of the author’s close family members were instrumental in producing the excellent documentary film Lousy Little Sixpence, in which elders discussed their experiences as stolen children, in the homes set up supposedly to ‘care’ for Aboriginal children, or working as domestic servants or rural labourers for white people in the first half of the twentieth century. I used this film as a resource many times in my teaching during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, and I now see that it was one of the earliest publicly accessible resources telling the stories of the Stolen Generations.

    There is so much to think about in this book. Please buy a copy or borrow it from your local library. It is such a rich resource on our nation’s history. And for family historians, surely we must all resonate to the author’s final words:

    The history of Aboriginal people in this country is also a ‘living wound under a patchwork of scars’ but the process of truth-telling creates healing. By reaching through time and pulling our ancestors’ files out of the archives we restore their humanity…
    Ruminating on the slavery theme, I wondered if family history research was the key to emancipation, because researching my ancestors’ lives has spiritually unshackled them.

    Reaching through Time p319

    Reaching Through Time is published by Allen & Unwin in July 2023.

  • Books and reading

    ‘What an Owl Knows’ by Jennifer Ackerman

    On finishing this very readable book I can honestly say that I now know a great deal more about owls than when I began it. That wasn’t hard: my main understanding of owls had come from Winnie the Pooh and Harry Potter (I’m exaggerating, of course – but only a bit.)

    The book is packed with surprising facts about owls, covering topics such as how owls are made (the mating and rearing practices of different species), the bewildering range of kinds of owls and their habitats (at least 260 species and counting), the way their keen sight, acute hearing, impressive camouflage and almost silent flight, all assist in their hunting of prey and their survival.

    I found myself trying to follow the instructions about how to imitate the call of a flammulated owl, being simultaneously glad I was alone at the time and amazed that I now knew there was such a thing as a flammulated owl.

    The scientific information is pretty fascinating, but what engrossed me was how the author canvassed the ways in which owls have been regarded by humans over centuries and across civilisations. It seems that owls have been associated with wisdom, witchcraft, good and bad luck, prophesy and mythology.

    Human connection with owls often has negative consequences, some deliberate, many unintended.

    Some cultural traditions, for example, hold that owls must be killed. because they bring misfortune. Throwing an apple core out of your car window can entice small birds or rodents to nibble on it, later attracting an owl which can then end up dead from flying into a moving vehicle. Using poison to kill pests such as rate or mice can also result in poisoned owls when they hunt and eat the rodents.

    Hedwig, the owl in the Harry Potter books and movies, resulted in a craze for owls as pets, with the predictable result of abandoned owls when the humans realised that their new ‘pet’ is a wild creature, difficult to keep in a domestic setting. Far from being ‘bird brains’, it is entirely possible that owls possess levels of intelligence we can only guess at, and they do not belong in a cage.

    On a more positive note, I learnt that there are people all across the world, professional scientists and ordinary citizens, who are doing what they can to learn about owls, educate others about them, and preserve their habitats.

    I thoroughly enjoyed my little journey of learning about these mysterious birds. Here is what the author had to say about an encounter she had with a female Long-eared Owl being studied by an owl expert:

    For me, it was an adventure, bright, intense, deeply affecting. That owl had seemed like a messenger from another time and place, like starlight. Being near her somehow made me feel smaller in my body and bigger in my soul.
    I asked Holt why he has devoted the better part of his life to studying these elusive creatures. Because of this, he said, gesturing at her empty path. Because they’re so beautifully adapted to their world, so quiet, invisible, cryptic not just in coloring but in sound, deft in the dark, superb hunters – traits that have evolved over millions of years.
    “And,” he said, “because they’re still so full of surprises.”

    What an Owl Knows p11

    What an Owl Knows is published by Scribe in July 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.