‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch

2020, 271 p.

Love and fear. Those are the emotions that permeate this novel by Koorie writer Tony Birch, each heightened by the other.

Set in 1960s rural Australia, prior to the 1967 referendum, Odette Brown is bringing up her granddaughter Sissy after Odette’s own daughter Lila ran away, leaving the year-old baby with her grandmother. Lila had never divulged who the white father was, and Sissy, now 13 years old, has no memory of her mother. All that Odette has of her daughter is a few hastily written letters from Lila from years earlier, saying that she has a job in a restaurant in the city. Odette and Sissy live in a small, rudimentary house in Quarrytown, an abandoned mining camp where Aboriginal men from the mission had lived with their families while they worked the nearby quarry, after the mission was closed. Quarrytown is on the outskirts of Deane, itself a dying town, a place of dirt roads and junk-yards, peopled by broken men (there do not seem to be any white women) whose employment prospects plummeted once the mine closed.

Odette and Sissy lie low. The local policeman, Bill Shea, grew up in Deane himself, and he doesn’t want to stir up trouble curbing the troublemakers in town, most particularly the Kane boys, themselves brutalized by their father. Shea’s lazy, alcohol-infused passivity does not protect Odette and Sissy, but it doesn’t threaten them either. This changes when Shea is replaced by a new policeman, Sergeant Lowe who, imbued with his authority as ‘local protector of aborigines’, is determined to clean the place up and ‘sort out’ the problem of half-caste children. A blackboard in his office records the living arrangements and conditions of every Aboriginal family in Deane, with Sissy the only child unaccounted for. When Odette falls ill, she realizes that she needs to locate Lila to care for her daughter, in case she can no longer do so herself. Odette applies for a permit to travel to the city, which is withheld by Sergeant Lowe but provided by Bill Shea, and grandmother and granddaughter take the train to the city, pretending to be an Aboriginal ‘auntie’ escorting a young white girl.

One of the many things that rings true in this book is the network of connections between Odette and Sissy and the aboriginal people they meet – often overlooked and insignificant – who co-exist quietly in the white world, keeping their heads down. They recognize each other instantly. One of the most affecting parts of the book is when Wanda, the receptionist in the Temperance Hotel in which they are staying, sees through their ruse and tells Odette of her own life as one of the Stolen Generation.

‘Can I have a hug?’ she asked, in a tone so hushed Odette could barely hear her.

Odette smiled. ‘Yes, Bub. Yes’.

The women embraced. Wanda savoured the scent of Odette’s hair, the touch of her skin and the warmth and strength of the older woman’s body against her own. She listened for Odette’s breathing and the rhythm of the older woman’s heartbeat. It was the first time Wanda had felt the touch of an Aboriginal woman since the day she had been taken away from her own mother

p.139

Another Aboriginal man, Jack Haines, is hiding in plain sight too but this time protected by the Exemption Certificate he carries. They meet on the train journey down to the city, and at first Odette recoils from Jack’s decision to eschew his family links in order to escape the legislation that both she and Sissy are fleeing. How odd- I only just became aware of these Exemption Certificates recently in Black, White and Exempt, and here they are again, just as fraught with perceptions of betrayal and compromise as I thought they might be.

This is a simply told story of love, that hums with the tension of fear. Fear of ‘the welfare’, fear of the police, fear of the Kane brothers- all of these things keep Odette’s eyes down. Sergeant Lowe is like Inspector Javert in Les Miserables in his dogged determination to pursue Sissy, but his pettiness and bureaucratic paternalism is no exaggeration. Yes- “the torment of our powerlessness”, as the Uluru Statement puts it. But just as importantly, there is love: the intimate, all encompassing love of a grandmother for her granddaughter and her grief for her own daughter. There is the network of kin that stretches across town and country, ruptured by government policies that Sergeant Lowe relishes, but instantly recognizable in a look, a face, a name.

Birch tells his story straight, with little commentary. His descriptions of the fictional Quarrytown and Deane evoke visions of those outback towns that can be found right around the coast, and the menace of Sergeant Lowe and the Kane boys is palpable. Dialogue carries much of the action, and Birch has a good ear for it. He captures ‘outback gothic’ well, but there is a deeply human aspect to it. He brings to life the shameful history of the Stolen Generations and the Exemption Certificate section through characters whose dignity and resilience exemplifies the strength of love over fear.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: e-book Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

Read because: It’s NAIDOC week, and for Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week at ANZLitLovers. And on my daughter-in-law’s recommendation.

One response to “‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch

  1. Lovely review Janine, of a warm but serious book. I enjoyed it too. How nice that your DIL recommended it.

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