Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021

‘Our Shadows’ by Gail Jones

2020, 320 p.

As a child of a 1960s education, I’ve often thought that the stories we read in our School Reader have a particular endurance in our memories. Perhaps it was because it seemed that the whole curriculum seemed to centre around the School Reader, or because as a fast reader, I was condemned to reading and re-reading the story until the slower readers caught up. When I read the italicized preface to Gail Jones’ Our Shadows, where a young girl is remembering a story of a trapped Italian miner named Modesto Varischetti waiting to be rescued, something snagged at me. It was only at the end of the book that Jones brings this preface back into focus. It was a story in the ‘Fifth Book’ of the Victorian School Readers. There had been a mining accident; the water rose too quickly in the mine; he was trapped on a ledge; then divers came for him, with those huge circular diving helmets. And for any of us who read and remembered that story with its blurry black-and-white sketches, it all sprang into life again with the rescue of the boys in the Tham Luang Cave Rescue in 2018.

This story is part of the clever bookending that Jones employs in Our Shadows. The past and the present jostle against each other, just as they do in the threaded narrative of the book. There are multiple strands. One is Paddy Hannan, famed as the discoverer of the gold that made Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie famous as ‘Wild West’ gold towns during the 1890s. Fleeing the Irish Famine that has winnowed out his family, the discovery of gold and his notoriety is just one part of his long life as he escapes to Melbourne where he drifts around St Ambrose’s church in Brunswick and the domed, green lamp-lit State Library.

The other, more substantial strand is the Kelly family, who lived in Kalgoorlie. In the present day, there are two sisters, Nell and Frances. Their mother Mary died after Frances was born, and their devastated maternal grandparents, Fred and Else, took over the care of the very young girls. Their father, Jack, left and the girls grew up completely in the care of their grandparents. Now Fred has died, and Else is in a nursing home. The two sisters, while not estranged, are awkward and tentative around each other. Nell suffered with mental illness as a teenager, while Frances has recently been widowed when her husband died with mesothelioma from a childhood spent in an asbestos mining town. Frances, the younger sister, is perhaps more grounded than her older sister, and when they agree to look for their father, it is Frances who travels back to the family home, now occupied by their embittered aunt Enid.

At first I thought that this was going to be a multi-generational family history story and I felt that Gail Jones was punching below her weight to adopt such a clichéd narrative structure. I should have trusted her more, because the writing is much more complex than that. One of the shadows that falls over the sisters is their innocent acquiescence in the erasure of their mother’s memory by their grief-stricken grandparents, and the dominance of the maternal side of the family when their father disappears. So the narrative skips back and forth between the present day, and their grandparents’ own story, and the sisters’ childhoods. The interweaving of Paddy Hannan’s own story complicates the narrative even further.

Jones writes landscape beautifully, and I think that her Western Australian sensibility shows through here. Her writing, in this as in her other books, is very carefully wrought, although at times over-wrought. Frances deciding to go for a run for its ‘ravishing repetition’, and feeling the ‘delectable’ pull of her muscles when doing hamstring stretches feels like the writing of a much less experienced, polished writer. I have read several of Gail Jones’ books, although I only reviewed Five Bells (see my review here) and it seems that I have had similar reservations about her other books as well.

As the winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for The Death of Noah Glass (which I have not read), Gail Jones is often regarded as a ‘literary’ and ‘hard’ writer. I do not find her this way, but this book is probably more accessible than her other books because of its apparently familiar family-history structure. It is much more complex than that, picking up the themes of her other books – estrangement, guilt, white response to indigenous dispossession, strained relationships – explored within family bonds. Her control of the different strands and time shifts is masterful, and it is a ‘meaty’ book with multiple themes and reflections.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

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

‘The Animals of that Country’ by Laura Jean McKay

2020, 277 p.

This book won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for 2021 and it comes emblazoned with glowing praise from other writers and reviews. ‘A game-changing, life-changing’ novel, it is supposed to be, according to Ceridwen Dovey. High praise indeed, but I’m afraid that it left me rather cold.

Jean is an older woman who has lived hard. She is an untrained wildlife carer and guide in a refuge, a job that allows her to be close to her granddaughter Kimberley. Kimberley’s mother, Ange,the manager of the refuge, grudgingly allows Jean to live on site even though her partner, Lee (Jean’s son) shot through years ago. News begins filtering through of a pandemic – [oh yes, a pandemic. Are we about to be deluged with books about pandemics? Spare us] – colloquially known as ‘zooflu’ which turns your eyes red and makes you able to understand animals talking. I must admit that the implausibility of this turned me off from the start.

The effect was not Dr Doolittle. Instead, people were driven crazy by the voices that they heard, and as fear gripped the community, some chose to expunge every animal from their environment; while others were drawn to the animals who surrounded them, to their own peril.

When the infection finally reached the wildlife refuge, they were closed down immediately. Jean’s son Lee, already suffering from the influenza returns home, and takes his estranged daughter Kimberley with him. Jean feels compelled to follow.

Jean drinks too much, smokes too much, and is harsh and uncouth. She does love animals, though, especially a dingo called Sue, even though Sue had bitten her when she was trying to release her from some wire. Jean and Sue take off in their ute, following Lee and Kimberley’s trail through an increasingly desolate landscape. Jean is infected too, and soon can hear Sue’s thoughts. The infection from the dingo bite is becoming increasingly toxic as the surrounding animals become more menacing, and as societal norms break down.

So what do these animals sound like? McKay depicts their language in a sort of blank verse in a bold font, tangentially related to events, usually fixated on food or excretion, and somehow ‘off’.

Gasping

over the lock (I’m

mingy.) It’ll call me and

I’d like

to get a drink of

it

p. 82

I must confess that I found these animal dialogues opaque (as they were intended to be) and rather twee. I kept thinking “this book is ridiculous”, and even though the concept is interesting, this is pretty much the way I felt through the whole book. Written in Jean’s voice – and a limited and uneducated voice it is, too – it is told in the present tense throughout. There were many times when I was confused about what was happening, although my confusion was generally resolved so that I think I know what happened.

I’m surprised that this book has received the acclaim it has. Although it was written prior to our own pandemic, it probably was released into a market more primed for pandemic-books than might have been the case five years earlier. I found the basic premise implausible (although interesting) and the writing rather flat. Not my type of book, I’m afraid.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

I have included this on the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Defiant Voices: How Australia’s Female Convicts Challenged Authority’ by Babette Smith

2021, 253p.

The response to a convict in the family has changed markedly over recent years. Once a source of shame and embarrassment, now it is brandished as a badge of pride (including by our own Prime Minister). One feels almost chagrined that despite rattling the family closet, there are ‘only’ later emigrants.

Family historians with a convict in the family have an advantage when it comes to sources. Across modern history there seems to be a reciprocal relationship between the severity of an institutional regime and the complexity and volume of their records and bureaucracy (thinking, for example, of Eastern European communist countries or Nazi Germany). In the case of Australia’s convicts, the transportation system generated a range of documents. Because they fell into a bureaucracy, we know so much about these individuals than we would have otherwise – their height, appearance, the circumstances of their crime- and yet, particularly for women convicts, their voices are rarely heard. This book seeks to recover those voices.

As Babette Smith observes, the characterization of the convict system generally, and women convicts in particular tends to fall into two extremes. The first (and I would put Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore into this category) sees Australia as a place of barbarity, oppression and cruelty; the second (and here I am thinking of John Hirst’s Convict Society and its Enemies) sees it as a place where the overwhelming concern was that convicts not return to Britain once their sentence had expired. As a result, there was encouragement to marry, establish a livelihood and in effect, start over again- as long as it was as far from Britain as possible. In relation to women, some sources were particularly hostile, depicting them as debauched and incorrigible. Other sources, Smith claims, have been interpreted by feminist historians as characterizing convict women as passive victims of the patriarchy (p.9). In this book, Smith muddies the distinction. She detects elements of both but most of all emphasizes the agency of women convicts, whether it be by choosing to marry and thus disappear from the record, or by repeatedly challenging authority through their ‘defiant voices’.

The book is arranged in a loosely chronological structure, starting off in Chapter 1 ‘The Crown v. the People’ describing the female convicts’ interactions with the legal system back in Britain. She discusses social changes and the criminalization of poverty. She points out that most female convicts sent to Australia were convicted of theft, particularly from lodging houses, shops, and trickery. Women were also involved in counterfeiting and ‘receiving’ stolen goods. She draws from the criminal records, court reports and newspaper articles, and observes that few women cried when sentenced, because tears and outbursts would certainly have been noted in the newspaper reports. Although male prisoners were sent immediately to the hulks, women were often held in jail until there were enough of them to fill a ship (p. 32).

Chapter 2 ‘All at Sea’ describes the sea voyage to Australia. Because convict ships also carried officials and clergy, many of the most critical descriptions came from relatively wealthy fellow-passengers appalled at their proximity to their unadulterated working class. These are the documents that have largely fueled the ‘strumpet’ characterization of convict women. Many of these descriptions were observations only, as the two groups were physically close but with little or no actual interaction.

Chapter 3 ‘Camping’ concentrates on the arrival of the early female convict transport ships and the immediate experience on disembarking. She points out the shortages of food and fabrics, the variety of physical relationships with men, and the paucity of knowledge that we have about the relationship between convict and indigenous women. Chapter 4 ‘Expansion and Consolidation’ widens the geographical lens to look at the other convict settlements at Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land. In the section ‘Turning Respectable’ she describes the changes that Governor Macquarie brought both to the colony and penal theory. He represented the rising religious morality of the middle classes, and constructed the Female Factory at Parramatta, which introduced more regulation into women’s experience. Chapter 5 ‘Women at Work’ argues that because of the shortage of female domestic labour, women found themselves at an advantage – often for the first time in their lives- and resistant to the ‘niggling’ of their mistresses and employers. Absconding was often part of this battle of wills, although as Smith points out, with an absconding rate of 25%, the majority of women stayed put.

Chapter 6 is devoted to the Female Factory at Parramatta, the design and administration of which was strongly influenced by the Quaker prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. From 1823 it was divided into three sections: the first for women waiting to be reassigned (the source of the ‘marriage bureau’ trope), the second for pregnant and nursing mothers and the third for punishment. Most of our ideas about the Female Factory are shaped by the appalling child mortality figures from the second section, and the defiance and insubordination of the third section. Here Smith develops her argument about women’s voices. The third section was noisy. Cheering, jeering, yelling, quarrelling were punished by hair cutting and confinement to cells. As she did in Chapter 4, Smith again widens her analysis in Chapter 7 ‘Secondary Punishment Settlements’ to take in the places of secondary punishment (i.e. sentences passed within NSW and VDL rather than back in Britain) in Newcastle, Macquarie Harbour, Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay.

Chapter 8 ‘Female Factories in Van Diemen’s Land’ looks at the factories at the Cascades, Hobart in George Town (Launceston) in the north, and later in Ross. As with the Parramatta factory, these factories were divided into sections, and all were overcrowded. Here, too, the women talked (p. 193), much to the chagrin of the superintendent of Cascades. They rioted, they sang, they danced, they jeered, they ridiculed – just as they did in Parramatta. Policies came and went, with ‘probation’ introduced in 1845 to inculcate discipline and submissiveness, but it was abolished nine years later.

Chapter 9 ‘Love and Loss’ looked at the role of marriage as a stepping-stone to morality in many cases, and further violence in others. Here she describes the conditions and death toll at the Cascades nursery in particular, and the role of orphanages. In a nice bit of symmetry, Smith closes the book in the final chapter titled ‘The People v. The Crown’, a neat inversion of the opening chapter. She emphasizes that the outcome for convict women ranged from ‘triumph to tragedy’. (p. 242). She points out that while the Crown always won back in Britain, in the colonies the tables were turned. The gentry needed the co-operation of the prisoners. Starting with the ship journey to the colony, there was a change in the power balance. The health care received on ship was better than many women had ever experienced before. Undoubtedly there were women who had sex with the crew,the officers, and possibly male passengers, but this may well have been their choice. On shore, women convicts were involved in every kind of sexual relationship, of which rape and coercion was just a part, but always a threat. However, as the century and the former penal colonies progressed, women changed, sometimes crossing class barriers in their relationships.

They were not silent. Smith notes:

Some historians have advocated a shift in historical imagination from ‘seeing’ to ‘hearing’ the past. And they are right. But it has been predominantly the sounds of a male world to which they have listened. Distracted by our feminist preconceptions about sexuality and gender power imbalance, we missed how loudly the voices of women convicts ring out from history’s page. Moving past the sites of exploitation suggested by the gentry, such as the voyages and relationships, we can hear more clearly what the women were saying, the force with which they spoke and recognize its impact on others. Their use of shouting, wailing, singing and ridicule as weapons in a war of attrition against authority is now fully exposed, with the range and depth of it much greater than we realized.

p. 251

There were many things that I liked about this book. It is generously and lavishly illustrated throughout the text with images and artefacts from the convict era, although I wished that some of the text-based artefacts were reproduced in a larger size so that they could be read instead of merely observed as an object. The text is interspersed with little biographical break-outs, which tell the story of individual women convicts across their whole life span, reflecting the work of family historians. I liked the way that she recognized the changing nature of the convict system over time, as the idealism of the early plans had to yield to shortages and unforeseen situations, the influence of Macquarie, and the regimentation of later convict policy.

And yet those frequent potted biographical break-outs exemplify the tension in her argument. They also highlight the importance of the choice of name for a book – something that I know is often driven more by the publisher than the historian, although in this case Smith thanks her Twitter friends, who overwhelmingly favoured ‘Defiant Voices’ as the final title. As Smith points out many times, the transportation scheme opened up pathways that would probably not have been available to women had they stayed in Britain. Particularly during the earlier years of transportation, when women and domestic servants were scarce, women found themselves in the box-seat, probably for the first time in their lives. Smith rightly emphasizes the women’s agency, and for many women, this involved making domestic choices that took them out of the convict system entirely. Again and again, her break-out boxes feature women who married or settled into some other sort of domestic relationship, and went on to have many children. Some became wealthy, others ended up being buried in impressive vaults, others became pillars of the church. I wonder how many of their friends (and indeed children?) knew about their convict origins? These details are drawn from genealogical records, rather than prison records.

Meanwhile, the more voluminous prison records deal with those ‘noisy’ women denoted by the title. Making noise is another form of agency – of resisting, calling attention, of refusing to conform – but the women’s loudness and the weight of documentation generated by their intransigence tends to overshadow that other domestic, quieter agency of summing up the options, and choosing the best.

It is rather misleading because in the body of the text, Babette Smith has resisted being dragged into an either/or, strumpet/victim dichotomy. The book is far more nuanced than the title and back-page blurb suggests. It is instructive to hear those voices of defiance, but it is important to recognize those other, more domestic choices as well – as Smith does well, despite the title.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Review copy from NLA Publishing through Quikmark Media.

I have included this review on the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

‘The Chase’ by Ida Mann

1986, 217 p.

Our face-to-face book went into hibernation during the lockdown throughout 2020, so when received our most recent read, The Chase, an autobiography by Ida Mann, we opened the box with anticipation. But what a smell ! the books had obviously been unread for a very long time (probably pre-dating COVID) and they were very musty. And having finished the book now, there’s probably a good reason why this book has not been particularly popular. Published in 1986, it’s very much a product of an earlier time, drawing on fairly pragmatic and workmanlike ideas of autobiography, and expressing attitudes for which Ida Mann would be condemned today (and indeed, in the 1980s as well).

If you’re wondering ‘Who is Ida Mann?’, you’re not alone. She was a world-famous ophthalmologist, born in 1893 in England, who had already reached the peak of her research career when she emigrated to Australia with her husband Profession William Guy, an acclaimed cancer research in 1949. After her husband died in 1952, she continued her work in ophthalmology, researching the prevalence of eye disease (especially trachoma) in indigenous populations, and speaking at World Health Organization conferences in many places throughout the world. She was also an inveterate traveller.

As might be expected from a woman steeped in the sciences, the book is very much a start-at-the-beginning-and-go-through-to-the-end endeavour. The presence of lines of verse scattered through the text does little to dispel this impression, reflecting the old-fashioned nature of the narrative rather than the author’s literariness. In its tone, the book reminded me of military histories, where every single individual has to be named and acknowledged, and Christmas family letters regaling the reader with travel tales to exotic places (from the days when we still could travel). Neither genre particularly appeals to me. The book (which admittedly has been edited from an even lengthier text) descends into an extended travelogue at the end.

This is not to detract from her professional achievements, which are many. One hundred and forty three published papers, a string of scholarships and fellowships, a CBE and DBE attest to her hard work and professional reputation within the field of ophthalmology. She was, however, no feminist. Just as Margaret Thatcher did little for the cause of feminism, Ida saw the ‘nonsense about women’s rights’ as unnecessary, because if you wanted a job enough, you would get it. She was vehemently opposed to the NHS, and it was its introduction, along with her husband’s ill health, that prompted her shift across the world. She expresses little empathy for patients, preferring the research aspect of her work. She was dismissive of the Australian slap-dash attitude when the pure genetic lines of her research mice were compromised because insufficient care was taken. Particularly repellent was her classification of the Aboriginal people she examined for eye disease into the categories based on their likeness to ‘us’: Similar, Almost, Rather, Hardly and Not-at-all. (p. 150)

Yet this intensely driven and pragmatic woman had a mystical side as well. She writes often of her dreams, particularly one vivid dream where she was presented with two doors. In the dream, she chose the door that opened onto sunshine, blue sky and fear, and this dream changed her life. She rejected the life of an office-worker that her parents had chosen for her, and became proactive in choosing and pursuing her own career. As in most autobiographies, there are elisions and silences, most particularly in her response to her husband’s death and a rather curious allusion to incestuous feelings towards her older brother, Arthur.

You’re unlikely to find a copy of this autobiography very easily. In a way, that is a pity because autobiographies of female scientists are not common. On the other hand, the stilted narrative, incessant name-dropping and dismissive individualism are not appealing features of this autobiography. Perhaps Ida Mann needs a biographer who can rescue her life from her own narrative.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: CAE as the March book for The Ladies Who Say Oooh (i.e. my face-to-face bookgroup). The other ladies enjoyed the book more than I did, and were more appreciative of her achievements than I was.

Ida Mann appears in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, so I have included her on the Australian Women Writers Challenge Database.

‘Nine Parts of Desire: the Hidden World of Islamic Women’ by Geraldine Brooks

(1995) 2008, 272p.

Given that this book was written in 1995, (reprinted in 2008 with a new afterword) I hoped that her analysis of the lives of Islamic Women in Middle East countries might have been rendered redundant. That hope has not been realized. Despite the Arab Spring, the position of women in Islamic countries remains parlous, and possibly even worse than when Brooks wrote this book prior to 9/11, the rise of ISIS and the wars that followed in its wake.

Geraldine Brooks, who was born in Australia, worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent for many years, although she is probably better known now for her historical fiction. While she was working as the Middle East bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, she was frustrated by the customs that made her life as a journalist so difficult, compared with her male fellow journalists. Then she noted that her colleague and translator, Sahar, had begun wearing the hijab. Curious about why Sahar had adopted it, she realized that as a woman she had access to women’s experience that was closed to male journalists.

For almost a year I fretted and kicked at the Middle East’s closed doors. Then, thanks to Sahar, I looked up and noticed the window that was open only to me.

p. 7 1995 edition

Taking on Islamic dress herself, she sought out women who were still working as journalists, politicians and activists. Many women told her that, historically, Islam provided an improvement on women’s conditions, that the Prophet himself was pro-women, and that Islamic dress provided a respite from the male gaze. She was not convinced:

Once I began working on this book, I looked everywhere for examples of women trying to reclaim Islam’s positive messages, trying to carry forward into the twentieth century the reformist zeal with which Muhammad had remade the lives of many women (other than his own wives and the Muslim army’s war captives) in the first Muslim community at Medina. It turned out to be a frustrating search. In most places the direction of the debate seemed to be exactly the reverse. Palestinian, Egyptian, Algerian and Afghani women were seeing a curtain come down on decades of women’s liberation as Islamic leaders in their countries turned to the most exclusionary and inequitable interpretations. For those women who struggled against the tide, the results were a discouraging trio of marginalization, harassment and exile.

p. 232, 1995 edition

The title of the book is taken from a quote from Ali ibn Abu Taleb, the husband of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and the founder of the Shiite sect of Islam. “Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men”. This sounds like an invitation to male lasciviousness to me, and the desires that Brooks explores in this book are not sexual. Each chapter starts with a relevant quote from the Koran.

Chapter 1, The Holy Veil talks about Brooks’ own interview with Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was President of Iran between 1989-1997, for which Brooks wore the chador. She writes about the variations of Islamic dress in different Middle East countries, and the effect of Iran’s theocratic revolution. Chapter 2 “Whom No Man Shall Have Deflowered Before Them” discusses female genital mutilation and its absence in the Koran itself, honour killing, and the paradox between sexual licence for men and repression for women. Chapter 3 “Here Come the Brides” looks at Islamic marriage while Chapter 4 “The Prophet’s Women” looks at Muhammad’s own family life, making the point that many of the revelations from God seemed to be particularly apposite for Muhammad’s own situation. Chapter 5 “Converts” focuses on Janet, an American who had married and converted to Islam, and Janet’s American friend Margaret. Both women complied completely with the demands of their husband and in-laws. Chapter 6 “Jihad is for Women, Too” looks at the paradox of women incorporated into the military forces in Islamic countries, and the empowerment (within limits) that this sometimes provided. Chapter 7 “A Queen” looks at the situation of the American-born Queen Noor of Jordan, a country that at the time offered the most hope for political liberalism. Chapter 8 “The Getting of Wisdom” examines women’s education in different Middle East countries, with differing degrees of segregation and the increasing presence of fundamentalism. Chapter 9 “Risky Business” looks at women’s role in the workforce, and Chapter 10 “Politics, With and Without a Vote” looks at the varied (and decreasing) political roles available to women. Ironically, some Islamic women were elected in hard-line Iran, but I sense that her political acceptability was increased by her persecution under the Shah which made her a striking example of the repressiveness of pro-Western politics. She picks up on the campaign by Saudi women to be able to drive- something that is shamefully still a travesty. Chapter 11 “Muslim Women’s Games” addresses the women-only Islamic Women’s Games and in Chapter 11 “A Different Drummer” Brooks herself gets physical by taking a belly-dancing course.

In her conclusion “Beware of the Dogma” she comes out most strongly with her own conclusions and the question of how we, as Europeans, should respond. She argues that “In an era of cultural sensitivity, we need to say that certain cultural baggage is contraband in our countries and will not be admitted.” (p.238) At the time of writing, America did not have laws banning female genital mutilation (Australia does). She argues – but does not believe that it will ever be accepted – that Islamic women should have a right to asylum on the grounds of “well-founded fear of persecution” as a matter of course.

I have read this book before, and I think that I am even more conscious of the issues that she raises, especially after the Arab Spring sputtered out. Her criticism is most strongly directed at Saudi Arabia, a country which has assumed even more importance on the world stage since Trump. She is strong in her condemnation, especially in her conclusion, but she avoids the reflexive Islamophobia of, say, Ayan Hirsi Ali (who lost me with her association with the American Enterprise Institute). Her interviews mainly deal with middle-class and educated women, but that probably reflects the milieu in which she was working and the contacts that she made. She seems rather oblivious to the effect that her Judaism – something that she does not hide- may have had on her informants.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: CAE Book Groups.

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

‘The Palace Letters’ by Jenny Hocking

2020, 288 p.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m rather uncomfortable with the current trend to write history as a quest, interweaving the researcher/narrator’s perspective on the search with the actual history itself. Initially, I loved it as something brave and humanizing. But after at least a decade, it’s becoming a bit tired, and I feel that it is often resorted to as a symptom of the paucity of sources, as much as anything else. Ah, but I’ve said this again and again, and now I’m even boring myself.

But sometimes the historian genuinely is part of the history, and this is certainly the case in The Palace Letters. Jenny Hocking has written a two-volume biography of Gough Whitlam, and has been working on the Dismissal for many years. Indeed, if it were not for her persistence, and the generosity of pro-bono legal representation, historians would only have been able to work with retrospective accounts of the leadup to the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government. The real-time documentation leading up to the November 11 1975 events was held at the pleasure of the Queen as ‘personal’ documents instead of the Commonwealth records that they are. After the National Archives refused Hocking access to the correspondence between Sir John Kerr and the Queen’s Private Secretary Sir Martin Charteris after the statutory period had elapsed, she embarked on a ten-year battle to resolve the status and ownership of these documents as part of the historiographical record of Australia. This book is the story of that fight.

I have been following her battle for several years , especially through her recent book The Dismissal Dossier and I think I even threw some money towards her crowd-funding campaign to fund her legal expenses. After the papers were finally released, I can remember feeling somewhat disappointed that there was no ‘smoking gun’ of a Palace conspiracy, but rather the self-serving and pompous bleatings of Sir John Kerr, the Governor-General who did not cover himself with glory in November 1975 or in the years afterwards. But having read, The Palace Letters there is, at the personal level on the part of the Queen’s Private Secretary Charteris, a passive encouragement to Kerr, and certainly a structural effort to keep this communication hidden on the part of the National Archives, Liberal/Coalition governments over the decades and the Palace itself.

The book is written in the first person, with remarkably little self-promotion and puffery on Hocking’s behalf, even though she could have easily trumpeted her credentials for writing this book. It starts off in the archives, where all historians love to be, and her discovery that there were actually two copies of the letters: the first, the actual letters and the second, a photocopy made at night by David Smith, the Governor-General’s official secretary in order to send to Kerr to write his Journal. When both copies were placed under an embargo by the Palace on the grounds that they were personal papers, she thought that she would never see them. It was when she read Sydney barrister Tom Brennan’s blogpost ‘Australia owns its history‘ that she realized that there were legal allies with whom she could join forces.

The book then moves to the various court cases that the issue moved through, and the arguments that were made on both sides for or against the release of the letters. She was a participant, rather than a disinterested observer, and the National Archives does not come out well, in her retelling, taking advantage of tactics like unequal access to information, obfuscation and courtroom time-hogging. Headed by David Fricker, a former deputy director-general of ASIO, it becomes clear that the Archives are more than just a repository for documents but a political actor in their own right. There is even a National Archives whistle-blower who, infuriatingly, conveys important information at such a late stage that it cannot be used. The Murdoch-owned Australian is a player here too, and it is not surprising that Australian journalists Paul Kelly and Troy Bramson have published The Truth of the Palace Letters as a counter to Hocking’s analysis of the letters, once they had been made available.

Hocking gives a good sense of the imbalance of this fight: the National Archives are able to draw on their government-provided budget (albeit at the expense of their other activities) whereas Hocking could be held personally responsible for court costs. Although she was able to negotiate a capping of these costs, and was able to draw on the cream of Australia’s legal system for pro-bono representation, there must have been many times when she felt sick to her stomach at the implications of the losses in court. For losses there were, and it was only when it went to the High Court and received a 6:1 victory, that the long battle had been vindicated.

The final third of the book looks at the content of the letters themselves, and the aftermath of the Dismissal for Kerr himself as the Palace distanced itself from both Kerr and the decision. At one stage Sir Martin Charteris referred Kerr to a book written by conservative Canadian politician and expert on the reserve powers of the Crown in former dominions, Eugene Forsey, which enlarges the scope of the question beyond just Whitlam and Kerr into a broader historical question. However, after the dismissal, the time for book recommendations had passed, and Charteris becomes frostier, with Kerr’s actions now in the past.

While, of course, tales of the archives and courtroom stories will appeal to a particular type of reader, this book itself is very accessible. Who said that historians can’t be heroes? If you’re tempted to read it, read Hocking’s The Dismissal Dossier first (which will probably get you fired up) and then read this book, almost as a type of morality tale, to see the Mighty Fallen and the rewards for persistence and the courage to put yourself on the line – for our right to know our own history.

My rating: difficult to rate…8?

Sourced from: e-book from Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

Interesting article: https://auspublaw.org/2020/08/the-constitutional-historiography-of-the-palace-letters/

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

‘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

‘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.

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: https://australianwomenwriters.com/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.