‘Saltwater’ by Cathy McLennan


2016, 314 p

If you go by the cover of this book, with its subtitle “An Epic Fight for Justice in the Tropics”, you’re going to be disappointed. There is a trial in this book, but you won’t have heard of it. It’s just one of what I suspect is an ongoing succession of trials of young aboriginal men, whose lives seemed almost doomed to incarceration by their background of alcoholism, illiteracy and aimlessness. It’s not an ‘epic’ fight for justice, and there’s certainly no victory here.

The book is a memoir written by Magistrate Cathy McLennan, who looks back some twenty years to her first graduate job with the Townsville Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, when she was aged just 22. She is not of indigenous heritage herself, and although brought up on nearby Magnetic Island, she felt largely overwhelmed working with this indigenous organization. Other non-indigenous barristers came and went, and despite her youth, she was very much thrown in at the deep end. The clerical and administrative staff were indigenous, and she relied on the guidance of aboriginal women working in a liaison capacity.  The male indigenous administrator of the organization was less supportive.

One of her earliest cases involved four young men charged with the murder of a white grog-runner. She was initially convinced of their innocence, and feels blocked by the local police.  The police, however, are not one-dimensional.  Called out to meet with a group of aboriginal people drinking in the park, she was horrified that a very young baby was lying on glass-strewn dirt. Brought right up against the dilemma of child protection vs. fear of another stolen generation, she realized that, in this situation, the police wee just as conflicted as she is.

Running alongside her involvement in this case was her ongoing contact with Olivia, to whom the book is dedicated, an 11 year old the size of a 5 year old, who was continually being locked up for robbery, and was sexually abused repeatedly. Olivia was failed at every turn: by her alcoholic mother, by child services who could do no more than come up with ‘a plan’, and by the ‘justice’ system that was content to shunt her off to Palm Island, where Olivia was even more abused than she was in Townsville.  McLennan bridles against failure at all levels that condemns indigenous children to incarceration. She could see the problem: she had no answers.  Now, twenty years later and as a magistrate, I find myself wondering if she has found a way for the system, that she is now part of, to do better.

The book is written in the present tense, and the prose is fairly pedestrian. She certainly raises many questions, and even if the book is not as “compelling” as its blurb suggests, it does add texture and complexity to a tragic and seemingly intractable situation.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

I have added this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.


One response to “‘Saltwater’ by Cathy McLennan

  1. Pingback: 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge Completed | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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