Monthly Archives: January 2021

Exhibition: The Swamp Vanishes (RHSV)

Image: RHSV website

Well, true to form, I visited the current exhibition ‘The Swamp Vanishes’ at the Drill Hall in a’Beckett St, the home of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, just days before it finishes. Extended because of the pandemic, the exhibition will close at 5.00 p.m. on Friday 5th February – so if you want to catch it, you’d better hurry.

‘The Swamp’ was a large wetland, west of Melbourne which has been variously known as the Batman’s Swamp, the West Melbourne Swamp, the Dudley Flats etc. It is still hard to describe exactly where it was because the area is now criss-crossed with infrastructure and construction works. I remember leaving Spencer Street (now Southern Cross) railway station by bus at sunset, bound for Adelaide, and turning to my then-husband I asked “Where on earth are we?” because, despite the high-rise buildings in the background, it felt a completely deserted, flat, wasteland. This is the area described in David Sornig’s excellent book Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp (my 10/10 review here) and the book and this exhibition complement each other.

However, unlike the book, the emphasis here is more topographical, with many maps and diagrams, many from the RHSV’s own collection. There is a section in the exhibition on Dudley Flats (the aspect of the by-then-drained swamp that I found most fascinating in Sornig’s book) but this is more about navigation and engineering. If you like poring over old maps, you’ll enjoy this exhibition – if it’s still on!

‘Winter’ by Ali Smith

2017, 322 p.

This is the second in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, a series of four books each set in the year in which they were written from 2016 onwards. It’s a strange and playful book, full of literary puns and allusions. It’s a bit show-offy, and for me there was no particular engagement with the characters, who seemed like mouthpieces for Smith’s own literary virtuosity and pawns in the author’s own political project, rather than flesh-and-blood characters in their own right.

The book starts with Sophia Cleve, a retired businesswoman, alone in her large 15-bedroom house with a disembodied head. This head bobs around in Sophia’s peripheral vision, moving in and out of rooms, and nestling closer to her. She is not frightened of the head- indeed, she becomes rather fond of it- but as a reader, you don’t know whether it is real or a hallucination. It is heading into Christmas, and Sophia’s son Art is coming to Cornwall to spend Christmas with her. A dilettante nature blogger, he has recently broken off with his girlfriend Charlotte, and so he pays a young girl, Lux, whom he met in a bus stop, to pretend to be his girlfriend for three days to avoid his mother’s questions. When he arrives there, his mother is acting particularly oddly. Lux encourages him to call his aunt, Iris, from whom Sophie has been estranged for several years, as the only other relative who could assist. Iris is a long-term social justice warrior, a veteran of the Greenham Common anti-nuclear protests, who may have played a more important part in Art’s life than his mother admits, and more than what he remembers.

In many ways, the Big House setup is a bit of narrative cliche. The Christmas setting evokes Charlies Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, especially when Sophia thinks she hears the clock striking midnight twelve times. Time jumps back and forward to other Christmases, as in Dickens’ book, as we learn more about Sophia and Iris’ relationship, Art’s life and relationship, but little about Lux’s life.

At the same time, the book is threaded through with the current-day politics of 2017. Iris represents the progressive social justice old-left, having left behind the concerns about nuclear weapons to now protest the harsh immigration policies of the last few years- something which Lux, as an immigrant herself, understands well. Sophia spouts Daily Mail political opinions, while Art is cynical and rather cavalier about the nature and environment that he writes about in his blog. The book ends with the ascent of Trump – (and how delicious to read about it as Trump leaves office in the real world!) – and even though it is July, a chill falls over the book.

But most of all, the book is playing with literature. There is much mention of Shakespeare, especially his play Cymbeline (I have never heard of it- should I feel ashamed?). Art describes the play as “The one about poison, mess, bitterness, then the balance coming back. The lies revealed. The losses compensated.” I strongly suspect that this is the political trope that is running through the series – although I will have to wait to find out about that. There is lots of word-play, and little reflections about phrases and how they can be challenged – for example, what does ‘to-day’ mean? What is the verb ‘to day’? How do you ‘day’?

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Autumn, which felt more human, with less virtuosity. I felt as if I was a bit ‘slow’ when I was reading it, and a little anxious that allusions and witticisms were going over my head. I’m interested to keep reading the other books though- indeed, I have them piled up beside the bed – and so I’ll reserve judgement for now.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Eltham Bookshop. I bought it because I couldn’t borrow it.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17-24 January 2021

Heather Cox Richardson. I’m listening to her history of Reconstruction. Her talk on December 18 2020 picks up on Congressional Reconstruction. After Lincoln was assassinated, there was a long hiatus until Congress reconvened, and in that time President Johnson (a Southern democrat) tried to tie everything up so that the South could come back to Congress as if nothing that happened. And, they pretty much got away with it.

Nothing on TV is Robyn Annear’s homegrown podcast drawing on the newspaper resources of Trove. In the episode The Suburban Ghost she regales us with reports from all over Melbourne of a ghost, sometimes described as ‘Spring-Heeled Jack’ who would jump out of bushes, pull back his cape to reveal his phosphorescent chest, thereby terrifying a friend-of-a-friend who passed on the story (as all good urban legends do). The reference to ‘Spring-Heeled Jack’ sends Robyn back to the British newspapers and an earlier history of such ghostly appearances.

The Daily (NY Times) I was impressed with the New York Times podcast about the riot at the Capitol, and so I’ve added it to my favourites. What Kind of Message Is That? is a rather depressing podcast about how Trump-supporting Republicans think about the riot. Biden might be President but there are millions of these people believing genuinely that the election was stolen, citing dogs or dead people who voted (whose existence has never been proven). I do ask myself though: if I were in a country where an election was stolen (and heaven knows there are enough of them), what would I do? Hopefully, though, I’d be acting on evidence instead of hearsay.

ABC Fictions. I heard about this particular episode before Christmas, but I hadn’t got round to listening to it. Paul Daley and Van Badham, who often write for the Guardian Australia pick up on Paul Kelly’s song How To Make Gravy and write a short story from the point of view of one of the characters in the song. Paul Daley’s story is told from the point of view of Dan, and Van’s story is from the angry sister Mary. Have a listen to the song, then to the podcast How to Make Gravy: a tribute to the Australian classic

The Documentary (BBC). I am opposed to capital punishment. Full stop. I was appalled by Trump’s orgy of executions carried out in the last weeks of his tenure. Lisa Montgomery: The road to execution tells the story of the woman who was one of those executed prisoners, the first woman executed in seventy years. She committed a hideous crime – almost beyond words – but no one (including me) wanted her set free. What a terrible life. What a terrible outcome.

The Latin American History Podcast. The Conquest of Mexico Episode 3 starts with a consideration of the various sources for our knowledge of the conquest. Most, but not all, Spanish sources generally portray the conquest rather benignly (although one Spanish source was so graphic in its depictions of violence that it was banned). The conquistadors themselves had their own agendas. Then there are the Aztec codices, drawn by Aztec men who were there (albeit somewhat after the conquest) – what an amazing resource. He then goes on to describe Cortez’ first battles with the Maya, drawing a distinction between a leader and a commander, and the procurement of Malinche who was to play such an important and controversial role.

‘Say No to Death’ by Dymphna Cusack

1951 (1967 edition) 259 p of very small print!

I’m old enough to remember the TB van coming round for compulsory chest x-rays and I believe that I had one before the mobile Xray program concluded in 1976. Amongst the sunspots and wrinkles, my arm bears the fifty-year old scar of a BCG vaccine shot against TB. I remember the secondary-school rite of passage of lining up for the Mantoux test on the inside of your wrist, eyeing it anxiously to make sure that there was a bit of a reaction but not too much. Then the fear of lining up for the TB injection itself, which school rumours depicted as being huge and excruciatingly painful (neither rumour was true). I’ve read about the local uneasiness in my own suburb of Heidelberg about the TB Sanatorium at the Hospital for the Incurables (now the Austin) and for returned soldiers at Mont Park and Gresswell. TB is still the world’s deadliest disease, but in Australia public anxiety decreased to the point where the school-based BCG vaccination was discontinued in Victoria in 1984-5.

This was not the case in 1951, when Say No to Death was published. Tuberculosis had carved out its own literary space: think Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Novalis and his love for Sophie von Kuhn in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, John Keats, Anne and Emily Bronte, Mimi in La Boheme – and probably many, many more. But in urban, post WWII Australia there was little romance or lyricism in TB. As this book shows, public health provision was under-funded with very uncertain outcomes, while private provision was overwhelmingly focussed on commercial profit-making considerations. People were afraid of TB, and there was blatant discrimination against sufferers in finding and keeping accommodation.

Jan lives in post-war Sydney with her older sister Doreen, both their parents having died. They live together in a small, basement level flat. When Jan goes to meet Bart’s ship returning to Sydney after a stint in occupation-era Japan after serving in WWII, her sister does not approve and she approves even less when Jan and Bart go off to a deserted beach shack for ten days together. This beach-shack holiday becomes a talisman for them both when Jan is diagnosed with tuberculosis. Despite his initial nonchalance about their relationship, he falls in love with Jan and is thrust into the role of carer in the small family.

I haven’t read a modern, urban (if you can call 70 years ago ‘modern’) TB story before. It reminded me a little of those cancer tear-jerkers that seemed popular in the 1980s (Molly dying in A Country Practice; the movie Sunshine) but there’s more critique of the medical system in this book than in purely emotion-based stories. Jan is not diagnosed for some time; the proprietor of the private hospital is a financial leech; there is much better care for returned soldiers who contract tuberculosis than for civilians; and if just a fraction of the money spent on war was directed to health funding, the public system wouldn’t have to be so threadbare and overworked.

Despite the gloomy subject matter, I ‘enjoyed’ this book. Cusack’s descriptions of landscape, especially at the sanatorium in the Blue Mountains, are evocative and she captures well the powerlessness of illness. She deals with betrayal, loyalty and trust, and I found myself worrying for the characters, as well as about them. Of course, it was a contemporary book when it was published, but I found it interesting as a piece of social history, despite the dated language. Somehow reading it during a time of pandemic, when we are again at the mercy of a disease, gave it an added poignancy as well.

My rating: 8/10? It’s dated, but I suspect that it will stick in my memory

Sourced from: my own bookshelves. I had read praise of it somewhere years ago, and when I saw it second-hand, I snapped it up.

Other reviews: Wad Holloway reviewed it as part of his Australian Women Writers Generation 3 series on his The Australian Legend website.

I have included this on the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2021

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 9-16 January 2021

The Daily (New York Times) What does it mean to be the last two females of a species? A Mother and Daughter at the End is about Najin and Fatu, the last two remaining Northern White Rhinos. (Interestingly, the Guardian also had a different article about them recently too). Born in a European zoo and with numbers falling precipitously, they were sent back to Kenya in the hope that going ‘home’ might spur procreation, even though Kenya did not have Northern White Rhinos. They needed to be taught rhino behaviour by a southern white rhino. The only hope for survival of the species is through assisted reproduction.

The Documentary (BBC World). The episode The Digital Human: Sacred looks at objects that are imbued with special meaning because of the memories they hold. Some end up in museums, some are cherished personally: a camera, a mobile phone.

Latin American History Podcasts Back to The Conquest of Mexico, Episode 2. The Aztec were already on edge before Cortez even set foot on land, with a number of strange happenings and premonitions presaging momentous events. Imagine Cortez’ surprise when what he should stumble upon but Spanish-speaking shipwreck victims who had been in Mexico for years, who acted as very handy intermediaries.

Heather Cox Richardson. With all that’s happening in America at the moment, I’m hooked again on her current affairs chats. You can find them on her Facebook page. The Tuesday videos are her responses to current questions, and at the moment all the questions are about what is happening in America today.

History West Midlands. I enjoy these history podcasts from the Midlands of England (Birmingham etc.) which mainly focus on industrial-revolution era social history, with a mattering of Roman and English Civil War history. Women Chainmakers: the ‘White Slaves’ of England looks at the system of outwork in the manufacture of chains by women working in small forges attached to their houses in the town of Cradley Heath. In 1910 they achieved the breakthrough wage of two and a half shillings an hour, but had to strike against their employers to actually receive it as the bosses tried to finagle their way out of paying. There’s a fascinating page showing different types of sweated domestic labour here. It was part of a 1906 public exhibition to raise awareness of the conditions under which small items of manufacture were made.

Radiolab. I actually heard this being played on Earshot during their summer season of repeats. More Perfect: Sex Appeal is about the way that Ruth Bader Ginsberg used a court-case of discrimination against men to establish the principle that the 14th amendment could apply to gender as well as to race. RBG’s case went down in history, but immediately prior to that case in court that day was another case (Craig v Borum) based on drinking laws and a Honk and Holler outlet. This is the story of that largely-forgotten and rather fumbled case.

Full Story (Guardian Australia) I was surprised to learn that ethnographers and linguists were still studying the Noongar people of south-western Australia until the 1930s. In Kim Scott on reconnecting to Noongar identity through story, author Kim Scott talks about a project linking government and European historical records, with Noongah stories of country. These Noongah stories are based on interviews with the children and grandchildren of the informants to ethnographers, and family stories handed on through generations. It is linked to Scott’s essay that he wrote in the Guardian in August 2020 as part of the Fire, Flood and Plague anthology, edited by Sophie Cunningham

‘Malinche’s Conquest’ by Anna Lanyon

1999, 256 p.

I don’t often read books twice, but I’ve just read this book for the second time. I first read it in 2007, when I had just started my post-grad studies at La Trobe University. The author, Anna Lanyon had quite a claim to fame within the history faculty at the time for having published not one, but two, books before embarking on her PhD. I enjoyed the book then, but felt that the combined travel/history format with the author playing an active role in the narrative was becoming rather hackneyed (although it may have been more unconventional in 1999 when the book was first published). Now thirteen years later, the historian-as-character is even more ubiquitous and my reservations about this well-worn technique are even stronger.

So who was Malinche, or as she is also called, Malintzin or Marina? She was a Nahau woman who acted as translator to the ‘conquistador’ Hernan Cortez. She had been either sold or kidnapped into slavery to a group of Maya, where she learned the Mayan language. When this group met with Cortez’ conquistadors, she was passed on to Cortez. It was transaction for both Cortez and Malinche that had personal and historical ramifications. When Cortez and his men encountered the Nahuatl- speaking Moctezuma, it was possible to set up a four-way translation chain between the Spanish-speaking Cortez, the Spanish/Mayan-speaking Jerónimo de Aguilar, Mayan/Nahuatl-speaking Malinche and Nahuatl-speaking Moctezuma (and back again). She soon learned Spanish herself, and acted as Cortez’s interpreter, advisor, intermediary and lover. She is variously seen as traitor or victim, and her story has been incorporated into the La Llorona legend.

So why am I re-reading this book now? I was prompted to read it after watching the excellent series Hernan on SBS On Demand, which is available until February 2022 (Spanish, with English subtitles). I’ve been learning Spanish for a few years now, and am far more attuned to the issue of translation, which runs through this book. There has also been increasing emphasis on contact history in relation to indigenous/British history in an Australian context. The BLM protests have raised questions about contested commemorations, and Malinche’s contribution to Mexican history is certainly controversial. I’m more attuned to Latin American history now. While I haven’t been to Mexico City (alas, it was on my to-do travel list which will probably not be fulfilled), I have been to other South American countries and am more familiar with Spanish colonial architecture and town layout, and Latin American culture. So, the book remains the same, but I have probably changed as a reader.

For all these reasons, I think that I enjoyed the book more the second time around. It is very much a travel/history amalgam but apart from some rather clunky dialogue with people she met on her travels, there is also considered, informed reflection on language, representation, memory and agency during first contact. While she does describe her lodgings and her work in the archives, she does not resort to details about the food or the weather as the less adept of these historian-as-character books do. While I recognize the appeal for readers and hence the encouragement of publishers, I still suspect that this genre tends to roll the historian onto centre stage when the historic record is thin. That is not to say that I don’t like seeing the historian at work – I do -, but I prefer eavesdropping on their questions and ruminations as professionals rather than reading their itinerary.

I do have her second book The New World of Martin Cortez and I’ll be interested to see whether the approach is the same.

My rating: When I read it the first time back in 2007, I rated it a 7. It’s gone up in my estimation and is now an 8.

Sourced from: purchased e-book

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

‘Another Brooklyn’ by Jacqueline Woodson

2016, 170 pages

It’s funny- when I was reading this book, I had two other books in mind which include ‘Brooklyn’ in their titles. The first was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a coming-of-age story of 11 year old Francie Nolan, the daughter of first-generation migrants to America. I strongly suspect that Jacqueline Woodson had this connection in mind when she named her own semi-biographical coming-of-age story, this time with an African-American protagonist. The second was Jonathan Lethems’ Motherless Brooklyn which doesn’t really have much connection with Woodson’s book beyond the fact that the main character, August, was motherless when her father shifted her from SweetGrove Tennessee to live with her younger brother in Brooklyn.

Forbidden by their father from going down into the streets to play with the other children, August watches three other girls, Sylvia, Angela and Gigi as they amble the neighbourhood streets. As she and her brother gradually achieve more independence, August comes to know the three girls and is embraced into their friendship group.

Each of the other girls has her own tribulations. Angela, who wants to be a dancer, refuses to speak about her mother who is largely absent in her life; Gigi wants to be an actress, and years later is devastated when her friends miss her performance in the school play. Sylvia’s parents want her to be a doctor or lawyer, and ban their daughter from seeing Angela, Gigi and August, but the friendship continues until there is a betrayal of the friendship.

As for August, she cannot believe that her mother will not return one day. Her father and later her brother become involved with Nation of Islam, but her own commitment to Islam is lukewarm. She ends up attending university, loving men and women and gradually accepting her mother’s death.

As a coming-of-age story, the book affirms female friendship, even in a time of increasing sexual experimentation with boys. There is the intimacy of long acquaintance in their friendships, and yet each of them has her own battle. Each of the girls has to find her own way from parental demands, expectations and inadequacies. At a broader level, the book also documents the social and demographic change in Brooklyn, as white residents pack up and move away, and as drug addiction and poverty becomes more entrenched.

The book is simply told in the first person from August’s point of view, with short paragraphs arranged into chapters. The handling of chronology is particularly well done, with flashbacks and flash-forwards. There is a real sense of nostalgia and affection for this younger self.

The book itself is only short at 170 well-spaced pages, and as soon as I finished it, I found myself reading it a second time, to savor how Woodson travelled so far with such simplicity and ease.

My rating: 8.5 /10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 January 2021

The History Listen (ABC) A couple of re-runs for the summer season. Oh for a properly-funded public television and radio system that didn’t have to shut down from November to February every year and subsist on re-runs. Two Spoons- the general who plotted to kill Hitler is about a man who delves into his family history to find out the truth about a long-lost relative, Georg Von Sodenstern, who was reputed to have tried to kill Hitler (the ultimate what-if history). Imagining a family castle and a shining hero, he finds that the story is more complex than goodies/baddies. Actually, I found this podcast a bit hard to follow. I don’t know whether I was distracted, or whether it was so many unfamiliar names, but I found that I had to listen to it twice.

Heavenly and demonic: the story of the saxophone is, as the title suggests, the history of the relatively-recently invented saxophone (invented in about 1840) , which had a hard time being accepted as a ‘serious’ instrument. During the early 20th century, it was picked up by jazz musicians, but was still rejected as ‘devil music’ by churches. Who would have thought that Lisa Simpson would be the saviour of the saxophone by attracting young girls to play the sax.

Heather Cox Richardson I woke up on 7 January to hear that mobs had stormed Congress after attending a Trump rally nearby. Driving down to the beach, I listened to Heather Cox Richardson who was live at the time, obviously shell-shocked by what had happened. She had predicted violence in her podcast of January 5, but listening to her live on January 7, you could just hear the shock in her voice at what she had seen. She suggested that Trump would resign within a couple of days- I wonder if that will happen.

Big Ideas I had just finished reading Jenny Hockings The Palace Letters (review coming soon), so I listened to her Dymphna Clark Lecture, delivered in November 2020 and broadcast on 3 December 2020. In her lecture “For the Sake of the Monarchy: How the Palace Letters have recast the history of the dismissal of the Whitlam government” she goes through much the same information as in the book.

Next up on the phone came Francis Fukuyama, not particularly one of my favourite historians since his gloating about the supremacy of liberal democracy a few years back. In Will a Biden presidency revitalize America at home and abroad , Fukuyama distances himself from Trump but there was nothing here that I hadn’t heard before. A bit ho-hum

Sydney Institute I can hardly believe that I listened to this podcast from the Sydney Institute, but I did. Having listened to Jenny Hocking’s talk on the Palace letters, I thought I’d get the perspective from Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston, both from The Australian, a paper which I do not read. The Truth of the Palace Letters (the name of their book) agrees more with Hocking’s book than I thought it would, although they exonerate the Palace from any involvement at all, (which I don’t agree with- I believe that there was tacit encouragement to use the reserve powers -albeit in his own right- on the part of Sir Martin Charteris, and beyond some early advice, a deliberate avoidance of the instruction to tell the Prime Minister). Gerard Henderson moderated the discussion and reminded me why I don’t listen to Sydney Institute podcasts.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021

I’ve signed up for the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve been doing this challenge since 2012. It was originally established to overcome the gender bias in reviewing of books written by Australian women. As a historian, I have a particular interest in history written by Australian women, and I have been the ‘History Memoir and Biography’ convenor for the challenge for the last few years. Memoir and biography written by women are thriving away very happily, but the ‘history’ category has fewer contenders. So, I have found myself challenged to seek and review history written by Australian women historians.

This year I aim to read 25 books by Australian women writers. I’ll continue to champion history, but I will try to read a little more fiction.

Want to join me? Here’s where you sign up:

´People of the River´by Grace Karskens

2020, 525 p plus notes and appendices

What a difference a name makes. This book is the history of contact on Dyarubbin. “Where?” you might ask.

Dyarubbin is the name of the river that Europeans named the ‘Hawkesbury’ and the ‘Nepean’. Where white explorers saw two rivers, the people of the river saw just the one. Its sinuous progress through cliffs, opening up into cleared ‘reaches’ with fertile soil attracted indigenous people 50,000 years ago. And from the earliest months of British settlement, it attracted the soldiers of Sydney Cove too, led by Governor Phillip, searching desperately for farming land to grow the food to support the increasingly precarious convict settlement.

This book, which has been shortlisted for many historical and literary prizes during 2020, is a companion volume to Karsken’s earlier book The Colony about early Sydney and the Cumberland Plains. The argument that she makes in both books is the same: that both indigenous and settler peoples were thrust into a new relationship with each other, in tension over the land.

This is a long book, divided into four sections. Part I, Deep Country, starts as many books do (and indeed Karsken’s earlier book does too) with the geology of the land being discussed in the opening chapter ‘Old land, first people’. In this case, however, there are people in this landscape, shifting and adapting as conditions change. Conscious as we are of climate change, here perhaps we see a possible future with communities forced to flee to new places and lifestyles because of changes in the climate. The second chapter ‘Dyarubbin’ looks at the artefacts left by these people, sought out and collected by amateur and local collectors in a way reminiscent of Tom Griffiths’ Hunters and Collectors.

Part II Frontiers, starts with an an explanation of the intent of the Sydney Cove settlement. Chapter 3 ‘The Great Experiment’ is far more in the vein of John Hirst than Robert Hughes in emphasizing the intent that, right from the start, small-scale farming be offered to convicts who had either worked out their sentences or been pardoned, rather than the penitentiary hell-hole of post 1820s described in Hughes’ book . There was an ambivalent attempt to create a more prosperous and settled larger farmer elite through the provision of larger acreages to ex-soldiers. This inevitably brought conflict with the indigenous people of Dyarubbin whose women had dug for yams in those loamy reaches for generations. Chapter 4 ‘Contact and Crossings’ is a short chapter, describing those early contacts between Governor Phillips’ party which included indigenous Eora men who were strangers to the Dyarubbin too. She explores the role of intermediaries, who included John Wilson, who after serving his time, slipped among the Dyarubbin people where he passed himself as a returned tribesman. In return, they named him Bunboé (buna means ‘to jest or make believe’ and boé is the word for ‘dead’ so perhaps they were on to him.) Chapter 5 ‘Conflict: Given No Peace’ describes the inevitable conflict where the people of the Dyarubbin took the corn which grew on the land that had offered up yams for generations. Both sides practised communal punishment: in indigenous law ‘payback’ didn’t apply only to the guilty individual but could be and was directed to family and associates; for settlers, unable to find the perpetrators, a group of defenceless women and children were collateral damage. The fighting was most ferocious at Sackville Reach, a deeply spiritual place, where the settlers withdrew for a while, unable to cope with the relentless violence.

Part III New Old Land has four component chapters. Ch.6 Forests and clearings explains that the European settlers were moving into a manipulated environment, although they did not realize it. Those clearings and friable soil did not happen by accident. Ch 7 Farming in the bush emphasizes that in early years, farms were small shacks, with a fenced vegetable patch, surrounded by impenetrable bush. Wide-scale clearing and forestry did not happen until later. Ch.8 Floods and flood-mindedness explores the frequent flooding of Dyarubbin, which often came completely unexpectedly from rain inland that the farmers were unaware of, sometimes filling the narrow canyons and making the river flow backwards. Chapter 9, Commoners and Strangers looks at the change in policy in the 1820s that made Sydney a purely penal colony, and the encouragement of large estates to replace and control that earlier small-scale haphazard development. It looks at the accommodations and strategic friendships made between some settlers and indigenous families. When settlers found their ‘commons’ – large spaces for free grazing and pasturing – been appropriated by government policy to regularize land ownership, their anger was closer than they realized to the people of Dyarubbin who resisted being alienated from their own ‘commons’.

In Part IV of the book, there is a change of narrative direction. Titled ‘People of the River’ it shuttles back and forth between white and indigenous experience in alternating chapters. Family Fortunes (Ch. 10) looks at the interweaving of settler families through marriage, whereas Family Survival (Ch.11) examines the practice of taking children from indigenous families. The cultural lives of both groups are explored separately in People’s Pleasures in Chapter 12 (settler society) and Transforming Cultures (indigenous society) in Chapter 13. Christian spirituality in a new land is explored in Ch. 14 Sacred Landscapes while Ch. 15 Sacred Company looks at both the persistence and malleability of indigenous spirituality. These descriptions of indigenous beliefs were more detailed than I would have expected -in fact, I felt a little uncomfortable reading this section, as if I were intruding. At the end of the book, in a satisfying narrative circularity, we are brought back to the beginning of the book with the rock art and stories told on the cliffs overlooking Dyarubbin.

At 523 pages of text, this is a very long book – probably too long. In fact, I wonder if its length kept it on the ‘highly commended’ section of prizes instead of on the winner’s lists. Could Part IV, with its different narrative approach and far more focussed on individuals acting within social mores, have been a separate book in itself? It’s strange: I looked back to my review of Karsken’s The Colony, and I made a similar comment about a change of direction at the end of that book too. In both of her books, up until the last section of the book, settler and indigenous experiences had been interwoven and integrated, and the last section broke the thread by dealing with them separately.

Because what comes strongly through this book is that both groups of people – white and indigenous – had had to make accommodations and changes. Many of the white ex-convict farmers had been, until recent years, rural people back in England and Ireland, still influenced by the premodern ideas of the commons and small-scale farming. Some farmers recognized, or at least tolerated, indigenous people taking the corn from what had been their commons. Those who acted as intermediaries, on both sides, were being stretched – linguistically, socially, intellectually and spiritually- by having to move beyond the familiar into the truly unknown.

The Hawkesbury has received quite a bit of literary attention in recent years. Most famously, on the basis of her own genealogical connections Kate Grenville set her The Secret River on the Hawkesbury, and Julie Janson has reciprocated in her Benevolence, an indigenous response to settler family stories. In this book Karsken takes on the hugely popular Secret River, not so much in terms of the fiction/history debate, but more for its depiction of the Dyarubbin people as largely uncomprehending, unknowable and eventually massacred into disappearance. She takes particular issue with Grenville’s scene where William Thornhill tries to introduce himself to what she depicts as an uncomprehending Aboriginal man. Instead of just mimicking a settler naming himself, Karsken notes that the Aboriginal people of the Hawkesbury were very particular about names and gestures of friendship. The brutal Smasher Sullivan in Grenville’s book would have not survived long because his brutal treatment of his woman would have been swiftly avenged. In the closing grotesque scenes there are poisonings, massacres and the burning pile of black bodies. Karsken points out that Grenville herself admitted that she drew on the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838, twenty years after the story depicted. She points out that Grenville’s book and the miniseries it inspired was also a throwback to the 1980s Aboriginal history that focussed on massacres.

However, by the time Grenville’s The Secret River appeared, historians were rethinking the portrayal of Aboriginal people only as passive victims of all-powerful whites, and recovering very different histories: the stories of resistance, and of the long war that Aboriginal people fought in defence of their Country. These new histories were more holistic too, recognizing other important aspects of cross-cultural contact- diplomacy, negotiation, conciliation, cooperation, friendship, intimate relations and the living exchange of things, words and ideas.

p. 125

Karsken’s work very much falls into this ‘new history’ category. There is something almost wistful about the possibilities at early contact. There are what-ifs in her history, most particularly concerning Governor King who after meeting with a delegation of men from the Dyarubbin, stopped making land grants further down the river – a policy that was swiftly overturned by the next governor sent out by the colonial Office. She looks for womens’ stories, and finds them. She seeks individuals, and names them, and searches for continuities. At the end of the book, she describes her discovery in the archives of Rev. John McGarvies list of ‘Native names of places on the Hawkesbury’ which brought the names of country out of the silence. It now forms the basis of a collaborative project with Darug knowledge-holders, historians, linguists and archaeologists.

I am not familiar at all with the Hawkesbury/Dyarubbin region, and I found myself having to consult the maps at the front repeatedly. I suspect that someone from New South Wales would appreciate the book much more than a Victorian would. In many ways, these early-contact histories right across Australia are similar in that they are all freighted with a common longing and regret for the closure of opportunities that were once open. But each one is also different, and best known to people familiar with the location, because they are so deeply embedded in ‘country’, and as a result each is particular to itself.

This is a beautifully written book, that has its broad-ranging and yet detailed research interwoven on every page. It combines archaeological, ecological, local, spiritual research that keeps its focus on individuals, in the agency they possess, and the choices they make.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

This is the first book I have included on the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge.