On page 1, a man is standing in a crowd at Pennsylvania Station. On page 457 he finally alights from the train. Clearly, this is not a fast-moving book. At 640 pages in length, it is a real door-stopper, with bulky convoluted sentences that extend over half a page at a time. Will it never finish? And yet, must it finish? As I found with other books that immerse their reader into a rich and complex inner world, I didn’t want to leave.
Ignatio Abel is a Spanish architect who has been contracted to design University City, just outside Madrid in 1935. Always conscious of his humble origins as the only son of a factory worker, he has married into a stolidly middle-upper class family and has two children, even though his love for his wife Adela faded over the years. Despite his left-leaning politics, he is accepted into his wife’s staunchly Catholic, conservative family, although he is increasingly disturbed by his brother-in-law’s increasing involvement in Falangist activities. Ignatio had travelled to Germany in the late 1920s and studied in the Bauhaus – a contact that bolstered his career and reputation, and gave him entree into the intellectual and wealthy elite.
His first glimpse of the American Judith Biely is when he inadvertently opens the door to a room where she is playing the piano. He then encounters her again when she slips into a lecture room where he is presenting, and in the crowded room, she sits beside his wife. He is quickly swept into an affair with her which is carried out in sordid hotel rooms and cafes where no-one he knows will recognize him. Already a distant husband and father, he becomes immersed in the affair, betraying his wife and disappointing his children. As a reader, you are just waiting for it all to come unstuck.
The tension and danger of the affair mirrors, in the personal realm, the slow descent of Spanish society into the Civil War in the political realm. The Republicans in Madrid, with whom Ignacio aligns himself, are continuing to proclaim themselves the legitimate government and trumpeting their victories while the rebels are inexorably moving towards Madrid. Once again, as a reader, you are just waiting for it all to come unstuck.
I was attracted to this book because of its Civil War setting, especially after recently seeing the film While at War and having read Hotel Florida and Amnesia Road. I guess that I’m on a bit of a Spanish Civil War kick at the moment. But this is not about the war itself in terms of geography or politics. Instead, it is a view of war stripped of ideology, capturing so well the juxtaposition of the banal and the horrific, and the distrust of former colleagues as life becomes more and more surreal. Against all this trauma and dissolution, Ignatio’s obsession with Judith seems even more discordant and self-absorbed.
There is a first-person ‘I’ narrator who appears at various places in the book, commenting on what he is observing. This narrator is not a constant presence, and he/she does not explain their connection with the story. I found this erratic commentary rather intrusive, I must admit. There is also a great deal of introspection from Ignacio’s perspective, and we spend most of the time in this book in his head, and looking through his eyes.
The book also captures so poignantly the way that an exile – especially one who has left to escape to safety- takes his memories and fears with him. He cannot unsee what he has seen, and his own relief at escape is tempered by his guilt over those left behind.
This book has been likened to War and Peace and Lisa Hill, whose review prompted me to read it, saw parallels with Proust. For me, I was reminded of Doctor Zhivago although it must have been forty years since I read it. It’s interesting that all of these are big books, just like this one is, and it speaks to the power of this book that it keeps company with such classics. It is not an easy read. It is damned long: probably too long, although I don’t think that a 300 page paperback would do it justice because the length and introspection and slow unravelling is part of its strength. It is also very dense, with very long sentences, and a forensic almost obsessive pulling apart of Ignacio’s thoughts. It’s the sort of book that makes demands of you as a reader, and you need to give it space and time. I admit that I veered between eyeing the number of pages left to wonder how much longer it was going to take, and ruing the small number of pages as I neared the end, because I wasn’t ready to leave it yet. It’s a remarkable, frustrating, immersive read.
Since learning Spanish with my various Latin American Spanish teachers (from Chile, Mexico, Colombia and Argentina – think of the terrible accent I must have!), I’ve been interested in Latin American history. When I heard the premise of this book, I was instantly fascinated. Imagine if Erik the Red’s daughter headed south from Greenland in 1000 AD and landed in Cuba. Imagine if Christopher Columbus was captured by the Incas and died there. Then imagine if thirty years later, the Incas arrived in Europe.
This book is told in several parts. Part One, ‘The Saga of Freydis Eriksdottir’ is written in the form of a narrative, starting “There once was a woman called Aud the Deep-Minded”. Set in c.1000 it follows Erik the Red’s daughter Freydis as she leaves Greenland because of family conflict and ends up in Central America. They bring iron and horses, leaving them in the hands of the Panamanians and Cubans when they leave to return to Europe, aware that they are bringing disease (but unknown to them, immunity) to the defenseless populations that have given them shelter.
Part Two, almost five hundred years later is ‘The Journal of Christopher Columbus (fragments)’, starting on 3 August 1492 as Columbus sets sail. Written in the form of journal entries, Columbus’ crew find indigenous people with iron tools and weapons, and riding horses. The journal peters out as Columbus sickens and dies while the Incas around him are immune to disease.
Part Three ‘The Chronicles of Atahaulpa’ is by far the longest part of the book, written in the same narrative style of Part One, with an omniscient narrator and the formal distance of a ‘chronicle’. In the 1531 Ataphaulpa, the last Inca emperor, flees Central America using Columbus’ abandoned ships for much the same reasons as Freydis did 500 years earlier (i.e. family feud) and lands in Lisbon, just after the earthquake. It’s Europe, but not quite as we know it. Of course, Spain has not been enriched from her colonies, because Columbus didn’t find them. Europe is riven with the Reformation, the Inquisition is torturing its way to infamy, and Henry VIII is casting around trying to rid himself of Catherine of Aragon. Ataphaulpa does not have a large army, but he triumphs nonetheless by appealing to the down-trodden peasantry, and his sun-based religion sweeps Europe, co-existing with Christianity- or as Ataphaulpa describes it, the religion of “the nailed god”. He finds a good handbook for how to deal with these Europeans: nothing less than Machiavelli’s The Prince. Henry VIII converts to the Sun religion as a way to escape his marital problems; Ataphaulpa revolutionizes agriculture by terracing and the introduction of avocados and tomatoes; 95 theses are nailed onto the church door at Wittenberg but these proclaim the supremacy of the Sun religion. Meanwhile, the Aztecs arrive in France, and a battle between the Incas and Aztecs ensues, with alliances with various European nations playing but a minor part. It’s a long section, comprising 214 pages of this 310 page book, but it is broken up with correspondence like that of Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, and Ataphaulpa and his consort Higuénamota.
Part Four is just short, and in the form of an 18th century novel, with its little chapter summary at the start, it tells the story of Miguel de Cervantes, who is living with El Greco in Michel de Montaigne’s tower and ends up being exiled to Cuba and not writing Don Quixote.
As you can see, there is a lot in this book, and for most of it, I found myself wishing that I knew more history. I’m vain enough to be uncomfortable about being made to feel stupid. At times little things had me laughing out loud- the Aztecs building a pyramid outside the Louvre for their sacrifices, for example – but it only made me realize that there are probably hundreds of allusions here that just passed me by.
The book is, in effect, a series of fictional historical documents – and I’m not unfamiliar with historical documents- but documents in themselves are not a novel. The reader has to work hard in this book, and I found my will to continue flagging. It’s more of an idea than a novel: there is little character development, and as many additional parts as the author had the energy to write could have been appended.
I’m glad that I read it, though. ‘What-if’ history is a guilty pleasure (very guilty) for a historian, and you come away from reading the book being knocked off-centre by its suppositions and alternative perspectives. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any longer at all- in fact, I was rather pleased to have even finished it- and I certainly feel as if I have been in the company of someone who is much brainier than I.
When I saw the title of this book I assumed, incorrectly as it turns out, that it was responding to that ANZAC day exhortation “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them”. Well, not only did I get the words wrong, but the title is in fact a quote from Hegel: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings with the falling of the dusk”. It appears as the very last sentence in this book, and in many ways it encapsulates the preceding 314 pages with its appeal to Hegel and its ultimately pessimistic tone.
As a well-known journalist and – increasingly – public intellectual, Stan Grant has been writing about himself, his indigenous/Irish heritage and themes of identity and Australianness for many years. I was interested to read this book because he steps beyond these themes to reflect on the present historical moment, informed both by his own experience as a foreign correspondent and as an indigenous commentator on identity and history. Subtitled ‘A chronicle of the world in crisis’, I must confess to being more interested in ‘the world’ rather than Stan Grant himself.
Grant’s various postings form the narrative skeleton of this book. The prologue starts on a train to China on Christmas Day, with his wife and children still asleep, at the commencement of his posting to Beijing as CNN’s foreign correspondent. He stares at an old man in a field, and thinks about all the things that this man would have seen during his life: the birth of the People’s Republic, the veneration of Chairman Mao, the Cultural Revolution and now the urbanization of the new generation. He then launches into his Introduction, which reflects on COVID, suggesting that it has centralized government control, revealed the fragility of democracy and brought the looming threat of authoritarianism. (I do not agree with him here). He suggests that we find ourselves at ‘a hinge point in history’ (p. 22), where the United States is staring down China, with democracy challenged by “the blood of identity, poured through the strainer of history” (p. 29) and COVID overlaying “this mix of great power rivalry, fear of war, rising authoritarianism, retreating democracy, political populism, nationalism, tribalism and toxic weaponized identity” (p. 31).
Finally, at p 37, he starts the book proper, although his opening chapter ‘The End of History’ continues with this scene-setting introduction, drawing particularly on Hegel’s philosophy of history. He is rather fond of ‘hinge points’ and ‘turning points’, and after acknowledging that ‘received wisdom’ sees 1989 as a turning point, he nominates instead 1979. Why 1979? Because the Clash released ‘London Calling’, Margaret Thatcher led the Conservatives to power and the Red Army invaded Afghanistan. Not, I feel, a strong defence of his choice of 1979, but he does return to the year 1979 a number of times during the book. Chapter 2 ‘The Return of History’ is the start of his own recounting of his life as a foreign correspondent, where he talks about his employment by CNN and deployment to Hong Kong as the first step of this new career.
In the chapters that follow, he gives a good overview of recent Chinese history, interwoven with his own biography. (Grant currently hosts a weekly program China Tonight on the ABC). He devotes several chapters to China: its history, Mao, the rise of Xi Jinping, and the rise of a China determined to reclaim its place after a century of humiliation. He then moves to other countries as his overseas postings lead him to North Korea, to Pakistan, Afghanistan. He feels the pull of identification with the people he meets through his own indigenous identity:
I was not born of the West, but the West was certainly born in me. By the time I was born, Australia was opening up for my people. I was always acutely aware that I was a bridge between my parents’ lives and mine. They had been locked out, segregated, denied the West’s greatest promise: progress. Change was long and hard, and we shill walk that road. My people- Aboriginal people – are the most impoverished and imprisoned in Australia (p.81)…
The things I have seen weigh heavily on my soul. It isn’t just the violence and the misery that I reported on, but the stories of these people, which connected deeply with my own. When I looked into the eyes of a child or a parent in a refugee camp, I saw the eyes of my own family. Reporting the world was my way of trying to understand myself. Like the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq or China, I had been shaped by history. My family’s story, too, was one of invasion, occupation, colonisation and oppression. We had been left on the margins, excluded, impoverished and imprisoned. I knew how easy it was for small peoples everywhere to feel the humiliation of history, to feel angry and grow bitter at some still-open wound, and to hate the people you believe inflicted it
After travelling through these Asian and Middle Eastern countries, he closes the book by turning to America, and the flabby impotence of liberalism, “a timid faith, a tepid, bloodless idea but one with which white people have ruled the world.” (p. 266) He despises Trump, but is equally damning of Obama and Clinton. He sees Biden as part of the same problem of meritocracy, entitlement and inequality. It’s a bleak vision
We are all on the highway of despair. As for the idea of truth, there is debate now about what that even means. Democracy itself has broken with liberalism, hijacked by demagogues who use it as a cover for tyranny. The champions of liberal democracy…now confront the prospect that their great faith itself will not outlast history.
I was drawn to read this book after hearing Grant give the Manning Clark lecture, which you can hear on Big Ideas. I now realize that much of that lecture was drawn verbatim from this book. I had thought that Grant had laced his lecturer so heavily with references to histories and other secondary sources because it was the Manning Clark lecture (Manning Clark was, after all, the Grand Old Man of Australian History). But I now realize that the whole book is like this, combining personal reminiscence with analysis bolted together with quotes from numerous sources. I found myself frustrated by this frequent recourse to the juicy quote, without the footnotes needed to check it further, and I found myself wondering, rather unkindly, why he felt that he needed to cloak his own work with so many words and works of other people. The book sorely lacks an index, and I was surprised that it was marred by so many small proof-reading errors. If you have seen or heard Stan Grant, you will know that he speaks in the cadences of the prophet or the preacher, and yet in several places his prose takes on the awkward, somewhat obsequious ‘well-done-that-fellow’-tone that you find in military histories and the letters inserted in Christmas cards:
I worked closely with an Iranian-American cameraman, Farhad Shadravan, who was the most talented camera operator I had ever worked with; he also became one of the closest friends I have in the world. His family is my family, and we are bonded in ways that can never be broken.
The final chapters of the book look at current events. He is not the first commentator to parallel the 1930s with current events:
What happened then, and how can we learn from that today? I can break it down to four things: hubris, history, resentment and identity. Each feeds the other: the hubris of victory and a faith in moral or political universalism inflicts humiliation that breeds anger and resentment – a victim looking for someone to blame- and this hardens into an identity of ‘us versus them’
He may speak in the tones of the preacher, but there is no redemption in his final pages. Instead, he leaves us in the gloom of the dusk, and I could find little of the “capacity for negotiation, forgiveness and hope” mentioned in the blurb on the back cover.
I also wanted to read this book as part of my contribution to Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week that has now finished on the ANZLitlovers page. Stan Grant is probably one of the best-known indigenous commentators in Australia’s public life today. His politics do not fit into an easy right/left category, and I often feel uncomfortable with his opinions. I wanted to read this book precisely because Grant’s questioning of identity and history are played out on a broader canvas than just Australia. But if the theme of NAIDOC this year was ‘Heal Country’, then there’s little healing, comfort or hope on offer here.
This book felt so similar to another of Mingarelli’s books that I had read, Four Soldiers(see my review here) that I had to go back to check to see if it was a sequel, or whether indeed I was inadvertently re-reading a book I had read earlier. But no, this is a different book, dealing with soldiers from a different country, who have fought in a different war. The sameness of Mingarelli’s probing of the effects of war on the men who fight is, in itself, a commentary on the universality and tragedy of war.
Once again, this is only a small book of 139 pages. It is set in the days of July 1945 in Germany, after the fighting has stopped. We know nothing of the war that the unnamed narrator, a British soldier, has had. But now, after being present after the liberation of a Nazi labour camp, he decides that he wants to photograph German families outside their homes. He approaches his colonel, who, like him is haunted by the sights he saw in the camp. When he requests a car and a driver, in order to take his photos, the colonel asks him why. He cannot answer. When a young driver, O’Leary, is assigned to him, he asks him as well.
I hesitated, and said: ‘My work, O’Leary. I’m going to take photographs’.
These are not benign photographs. The narrator and O’Leary drive into the countryside, not really sure of where they are going, soldiers from the victor’s side travelling through what had been, until a few weeks earlier, enemy territory. Often they demand food, as well as the photographs, and many of the photographs are taken at gunpoint. I really can’t imagine that these would be ‘happy snaps’. I’m sure that the subjects were resentful, hateful, frightened and bemused. At one house, the narrator demands that a new husband wake his wife on the morning after their wedding, so that he can take their photograph. This is not art: it is a power relationship.
I don’t think that our narrator knows why he wants to take these photographs, and neither does O’Leary. He is a young soldier, originally with the Signals Corps, who arrived to fight just as the war finished. He has his secrets too, but is unwilling to divulge them with the narrator. There is a dreamlike quality to their journey, but it’s more like waking from a nightmare. Neither man pushes the other for any explanation, and so we as readers are none the wiser either. I’m not quite sure that I took the meaning from the ending, but it works well enough for me.
I read from the back cover that Mingarelli died during 2020. Apparently he has written numerous novels, but he is best known in English for this collection of small novels comprising A Meal in Winter (longlisted for the Booker in 2019), Four Soldiers and now this one. It’s interesting that the front cover of each identifies it as ‘A Novel’, despite their short length, and I wonder what the effect would be on the reader to have them bound within the one volume. With two set in Germany and one in Russia, amongst German, Russian and now English soldiers each book explores the question of what war does to a soldier when the immediate rush of adrenaline subsides.
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
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.
It’s fitting that this book should start with the Uluru Statement from the Heart, written out in full. I wonder if in decades to come, this statement will be as well known to Australians as the Gettysburg Address or John of Gaunt’s ‘This Sceptred Isle’ speech. I’d like to think that it will be.
In his foreword, Reynolds notes that there was not universal Indigenous support for the statement, but that it was undoubtedly the most widely canvassed document addressed to the wider community by First Nations representatives, drawn from over 1000 participants, meeting at 12 locations around the country.
It was also a masterpiece of forensic advocacy – succinct, with scarcely a wasted word, utilitarian where necessary, elegant, even poetic in places. It is a document that will endure. But its lasting political impact is yet to be determined.
He points out that most of the political discussion so far has been about the Voice to Parliament, which reflects the strategic choice of the Referendum Council to go for Voice- Treaty – Truth. The response by the Australian government was quick and dismissive. (I wonder how Malcolm Turnbull feels about that now?) In this book, however, Reynolds concentrates on the starting premise of the Statement: the issue of sovereignty.
Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our own laws and customs… This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain unattached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.
How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years? With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart, reprinted p. viii and ix
Now, I admit that sovereignty is not exactly the most gripping topic. It is mired in the 17th and 18th century international jurisprudence that was triggered by Spanish, Portuguese and British colonization in the Americas, Africa and Asia. Even the names are offputting: Grotius, von Pufendorf, Heineccius, de Vattel. This international law formed the basis of American court cases in the 1820s and ’30s when settlers were moving across the American continent. It’s a pretty specialized area, and doesn’t lend itself easily to the much-vaunted and Americanized ‘water cooler conversation’. But in essence, Reynolds argues here that Britain stuffed up colonization in Australia from the very start, acting in ways that were inconsistent with received international law at the time. Despite some hand-wringing from the Colonial Office as a result of humanitarian pressure-politics, the error was perpetuated and entrenched when the Australian colonies achieved self-government. It is was inconsistent then, and it is inconsistent now with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, adopted by the General Assembly in September 2007 and ratified by Australia in 2009. If blame has to be apportioned, it can be directed at the British government up until 1856 but from then on, it lies at Australia’s feet.
In the introduction Reynolds explains his own ignorance of the fraught relations between White Australians and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people until he went to teach at James Cook University in Townsville, where his students were living this history. From there, the book is divided into 2 parts.
Part 1 ‘The First Sovereign Nations’ explores different aspects of sovereignty. Chapter 1 ‘Taking Possession’ looks at Captain Cook’s ceremony on Possession Island off the NW coast of Cape York in August 1770 where he took possession of the country in His Majesty’s name, together with all the bays, harbours, rivers and islands situated on the coast. Right here we have a glitch: according to his secret instructions of 30 July 1768 he was instructed to ‘with the consent of the natives take possession of convenient situations’ or if he found it uninhabited, ‘take possession by setting up proper marks and inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors’. He did not find it uninhabited, nor did he seek or gain consent. When the First Fleet landed in 1788, Arthur Phillip’s commissions on 12 October 1786 and 2 April 1787 made no mention of consent. Immediately on arrival, Phillip wrote back that there were far more Aboriginal people than Sir Joseph Banks and James Matra, who had advised the Colonial Office, had suggested. Nor was inland Australia uninhabited.
Chapter 2 ‘This Ancient Sovereignty’ explores the dawning realization that Aboriginal people lived in tribal groups, in specific districts with known boundaries, and that there were no ‘unpeopled’ lands. Each First Nation contested the encroachment on their traditional lands, and fought for their own country and nowhere else. By the time Ralph Darling was appointed as governor to NSW in 1825, his instructions were to treat Aboriginal nations no longer as British subjects but ‘as if they proceeded from subjects of any accredited State’.(p. 41) This stance was reversed in 1837 when they were again ‘considered as Subjects of the Queen’ (p. 72).
Chapter 3 ‘Whose Land?’ looks at the concept of terra nullius and the acceptance within Australia that, even if this was a mistaken characterization, it was an understandable and even appropriate decision on the part of the British government as a consequence of the failure of Aboriginal society to reach a designated level of ‘civilization’. However, this flew in the face of late 18th and early 19th century international law and the recognition of Native American property rights elsewhere in the Empire, especially in the American Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Marshall between 1801 and 1835 and in New Zealand courts in 1847. By the mid 1830s, humanitarian reformers, previously involved in the slave trade, turned their attention to the fate of Indigenous peoples in British colonies, especially through James Stephen, the permanent under-secretary. Aboriginal protectors, governors (particularly George Arthur in Tasmania, to whom Reynolds gives credit) and eventually the Secretary of State argued that pastoral leases should not allow the driving off of the ‘Natives’ who “have every right to the protection of the law from such aggressions”. (p. 68) Once the colonies gained self-government, this stance was largely ignored.
Chapter 4 ‘Effective control?’ highlights the concern that the Australian government had over the ’empty’ north. The question of ‘effective control’ was important in international law and applied by the British government elsewhere in the world. Britain refused a Portuguese claim to territory in central Africa between Angola and Mozambique because there was no sign of Portuguese jurisdiction or authority and no real occupation. The same issue arose in Nicuargua, when claims of being a successor state to the Spanish Empire were rejected. If the standards of international law as they were understood at the time of Australian federation were applied, neither the states nor the federal government exercised effective control over large areas of Australia.
Ch. 5 ‘Australia and the Law of Nations’ returns to international law. There is, Reynolds claims “clearly more support in international law for the Uluru Statement than many Australians likely imagine.” (p. 90) He turns to the Australian cases of R. v Murrell in 1836 (and I’m surprised that Reynolds did not reference ‘my’ Justice John Walpole Willis here at all) and Cooper v Stuart (1889), both of which cast long legal shadows. He then jumps ahead to the Mabo case of 1992.
Ch. 6 ‘Treaty yeh, Treaty now’ looks at George Augustus Robinson’s ‘peace treaty in all but name’ that brought the Black Wars in Tasmania to an end. Reynolds is dismissive of John Batman’s attempt at a treaty in Port Phillip, pointing out that treaties can only be negotiated by the Crown. The British government, however, abandoned the policy of treaty-making in Australia, even though it ratified treaties in North America, thus condemning hundreds to violent deaths (p. 122). This did not mean that there were not informal ‘treaties’.
There seems to have been some common characteristics of successful negotiations, including understandings about access to water, and about hunting parties avoiding sheep and cattle. In exchange, animals were regularly slaughtered and given to the local band in return for a promise not to spear them out on the range…But an even more significant factor was the provision of young men, who quickly acquired the new skills that, when added to traditional bushcraft, made them valuable additions to any station’s workforce. Young women were provided to be trained in domestic work and to provide sexual comfort. It was often done with reluctance but with an understanding that if not mutually arranged the women would be taken by force. But a frequent underlying consideration was that with a negotiated settlement the station in question became a relatively secure haven away from ambient violence. The ‘white boss’ became a defender of ‘his’ blacks, even able at times to protect them from violent neighbours and marauding police patrols.
But if we are to move beyond the informal, ad-hoc and contingent, as the Uluru Statement urges us to do, a treaty is needed. To a certain extent, some state governments are picking up the baton after Bob Hawke promised to negotiate a treaty at Barunga in the NT thirty years ago. But, despite state-level treaties, there will still need to be a treaty between the national government and First Nations.
Only then will the vexed problem of how to deal with what in the Statement from the Heart was called ‘this ancient sovereignty’ be resolved
Part II of the book is titled ‘Searching for Truth-Telling’ takes the reader into the politics within which the Uluru Statement from the Heart has been launched.
Chapter 7 ‘The Truth about 26 January’ deals with the almost-annual controversy that emerges every January, and points out that the date has been problematic for some time. It was clearly on display in 1938 (150th anniversary) when the Sydney re-enactments were accompanied by a Day of Mourning in Victoria and New South Wales. Claims that 1788 brought the rule of law are inconsistent with the subversion of existing international law represented by Phillip’s instructions and later actions.
Chapter 8 ‘Settlement, Conquest or something else?’ points out that although the term ‘settlement’ suggests coming to rest, or establishing tranquility, it is a term far removed from the “gritty, turbulent and often bloody business of colonisation.” (p. 143) Although within a generation, observers in NSW and Tasmania recognized that the distinct First Nations had their own forms of law and government, a conceptual dissonance developed between the way the law was understood on the frontiers, and the way it was dissseminated in books, newspapers, speeches and sermons. This chapter describes this conceptual dissonance, which has bubbled along quietly for the past 150 years.
Chapter 9 ‘The Cost of Conquest’ highlights the widespread knowledge of the violence of the frontier, contrasted against the ‘great forgetting’ described by WEH Stanner in the 1960s and 1970s. Here he returns to his own ignorance of the violence, and his attempts to enumerate the deaths on the frontier. His first attempt was in a Meanjin article in December 1972 (perhaps 10,000-12,000 as a guess), followed by The OtherSide of the Frontier in 1981 where he hazarded 20,000 deaths for the country as a whole, a number which remained unchallenged until the ‘history wars’ between 1996-2002. Of course, in 2002 Keith Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History whipped up a storm of controversy.
In Chapter 10 ‘Queensland was Different’ he points out that there were two distinct phases in the conquest of Australia. The first unfolded over the first 70 years, the second played out in the second half of the 19th century as colonists pushed into the top third of the continent north of the Tropic of Capricorn. Although Queensland had been settled in the first phase, the conquest of the second phase took place as an Australian project, not a British one. The squatters of this second phase took with them the attitudes shaped by violent conquest in NSW. They rejected the idea that Aboriginal people were British subjects, and that killing an Aboriginal person left one open to a charge of murder (p.179). The most egregious departure from the rule of law was the deployment of the Native Police force from NSW, with the purpose “to kill Aboriginal people in sufficient numbers to terrorize them into submission” (p. 184). Raymond Evans and Robert Orsted-Jensen have sampled the remnant records that ended up in other government documents and came up with a figure of 40,000 Aboriginal men women and children killed by the Native Police, and another 20,000 violent deaths at private hands. It is true that this is Aboriginal people killing other Aboriginal people, and Reynolds points out that the truth-telling called for in the Uluru Statement will need to deal with this as well (p. 198)
Governors and settlers had long characterized this conflict as ‘warfare’ and in Chapter 11 ‘Remembering the Dead’, Reynolds contrasts this silence about frontier violence, and unwillingness to recognize Aboriginal warriors as patriots (in the truest sense of the word) with Australia’s remembering and commemorating of Australian citizens who have died in overseas wars. This is exemplified by the expense lavished on the Australian War Memorial, and its steadfast refusal to include frontier wars under its aegis. He suggests that a formal ceremony of placing a tomb for the unknown warrior in the heart of the War Memorial next the the grave of the unknown soldier would have been an event of “immense national importance, a symbol of respect, inclusion and reconciliation”. (p.207) He acknowledges that there is little chance now that this will ever happen.
Chapter 12 ‘The Consequences of Truth-Telling’ looks at the removal and replacement of statues in South America, the southern states of the United States, the University of Cape Town in South Africa, Georgetown University and in Britain. He looks at the daubing of statues in Sydney’s Hyde Park in 2017, and a new statue of Lachlan Macquarie erected in 2013 which received similar attention. This chapter includes a potted summary of the rest of the book from p. 215 – 219 which seems rather oddly placed so late in the narrative. He points out that Australians have been ready to call the early governors – Phillip, Macquarie, Brisbane, Arthur and Stirling – to account, but less likely to pay attention to Sir John Forrest (WA), Sir John Downer (SA) and Sir Samuel Griffith (Qld), who as premiers and attorney-generals in the late 19th century and early 20th century oversaw the violent suppression of Indigenous resistance. They have suburbs and universities named after them; in some cases their families are still prominent in political and legal circles.
He continues this train of thought in Chapter 13 ‘Inescapable Iconoclasm’ where he particularly looks at Sir Samuel Griffith. Reynolds has read the foreword that appears in every volume of the well-regarded Griffith Review, praising Sir Samuel Griffith as ‘one of Australia’s early great achievers” and claiming that their publication emulates Griffith’s ‘sceptical eye and a pragmatically reforming heart and a commitment to public discussion”. (p. 226) What about Griffith University? The Australian Electoral Commission removed the names of Batman and McMillan as Victorian electorates on the basis of their involvement in frontier warfare – what then about the Brisbane seat of Griffith?
[Griffith] oversaw far more bloodshed than the two frontiersmen. But is it a case of it being much easier to take symbolic action against the foot soldiers than against the high command and knights of the realm?
I think he’s right: it’s easy to attack ‘early’ perpetrators, especially when they are clothed in British imperialism, but less easy for more recent, ‘home-grown’ public figures, whose names are attached to institutions and intellectual endeavours that we value.
His final chapter ‘Conclusion: The Resurgent North’ returns to the Uluru Statement. It will always be associated, he suggests, with “its peremptory rejection by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull”, a rejection that was unexpected and “profoundly disrespectful”. (p. 237) The claim in the Statement that sovereignty had “never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown” was more than a rhetorical flourish, and “it sits there unanswered in the inboxes of the nation’s leaders in both our parliaments and our courts.” (p.245)
This is a timely book, given the insistence of the Referendum Council in pushing the Uluru Statement forward, despite the wish by many politicians to sweep it away. In many ways, the book encapsulates many of the ideas that Reynolds has been putting forward over many years in his other publications, including The Other Side of the Frontier, Why Weren’t We Told? and This Whispering in our Hearts(which I see has been recently republished). Like his other books, it is quietly and doggedly argued. Reynolds is a historian, not a legal scholar, but by necessity this book has had to deal with a great deal of legal argument in order to underscore the illegality, in international law terms, of what we have long taken for granted. It is quietly but passionately argued, from a deep conviction. It raises important questions that, if we are to tell the truth, we will need to face eventually. The questions can be forced upon us by international bodies and treaties, or we can stand up ourselves with First Nations people who, through the Uluru Statement, have invited Australians “to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future”. I know which I’d prefer.
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
My rating: 8/10 (It feels a bit odd even giving it a rating).
‘Ruling from the grave’ seems a particularly insidious form of personal power, as Caroline Kearney found out as a 31 year old widow with six children. She had immigrated to Australia with her family from England as a 17 year old, and married Edward Kearney, a Catholic Irishman who had left his family back in Ireland when he settled in Australia. After farming in South Australia and then the Wimmera in Victoria, Caroline expected that her sons would inherit the family property. It was only when her husband died in October 1865 that she learned that the inheritance, for both herself and her children, depended on her shifting to Ireland and raising the children there as a widow, under the guidance and oversight of her very Catholic -inlaws. She was English: she had never been to Ireland, and all her children had been born in Australia. A dilemma indeed.
It says much for this book that I’m not going to tell you any more. The decisions made and tactics deployed by both Caroline and the Kearney family lie at the heart of this narrative, and I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment by telling you what happened.
Bettina Bradbury is a New Zealand-born historian, who spends much of her time in Australia. She has spent much of her academic life in Canada, writing women’s and family history and her most recent book Wife to Widow: Lives, Laws and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Montreal won multiple awards. It was in widening her lens to look at marriage, property and inheritance in the British Empire more generally that she encountered Caroline Kearney. She found the reports of Caroline’s contest against the will in the Victorian Law Reports, and scrawled “Wow, draconian patriarch” and “controlling father too” across her copy. Fascinated by the case, and the ways in which it embodied the themes she wanted to explore, she put aside the broader book she planned, and concentrated on Caroline instead.
Although she acknowledges the assistance she received from two great-great-grandchildren of Caroline and Edward, this is not your usual family-history search narrative, freighted with family identity and identification. That is not to say that Bradbury was not emotionally invested: her loyalties clearly lie with Caroline and other women whose financial rights were circumscribed by property and inheritance law until Married Women’s Property Acts were legislated across the British Empire. But she brings to this case study her historian’s eye, conscious of context and the norm, and alert to the anomalous and unusual. Her extensive bibliography (how lucky she is to have footnotes AND index AND separate bibliography!) reveals the breadth of her sources: newspapers, genealogical information, legal documentation, secondary sources and an unpublished family history, written by one of Caroline’s sons explaining his family upbringing. These sources enable her to focus in closely on Caroline’s case, but then step back to take a wider perspective. In this way, we roam across emigration history, pastoral history, 19th century legal principles, sectarianism, social history, women’s rights, paternalism and history of the family more generally.
Bradbury is present throughout the narrative, interjecting “I” observations at various places. She is open in admitting where the sources fail her, and where she has had to turn to imagination and empathy instead. While her sympathies clearly lie with Caroline, she is not unaware of her foibles. From the perspective of more than a century later, mis-steps and wrong turns become clearer, but not more explicable. In some of the twists and turns of the story, Bradbury is incredulous – wondering whether the person named in a document really is ‘her’ person because their actions seem so discordant. I guess that it’s the difference between a life lived, with all its contradictions and compromises, and a life documented in the flat and abbreviated historical record.
Bradbury has hit the sweet spot between an engaging narrative history and insightful analysis with this book. Because the two are interwoven so seamlessly throughout the text, I was a little disappointed in the ending, which was a ‘what happened next’ follow-through with the members of the family. While I did want to know what became of the children, this section was necessarily more cursory in its treatment, and became rather too much of a genealogical run-through. There was a short, more analytic summary in the closing pages, but I would have preferred that it was longer, with a wider scope.
This book was shortlisted for the 2020 Ernest Scott History Prize, which is awarded to “the book judged to be the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand or to the history of colonisation published in the previous year.” Its span and its strong tethering in the carefully-documented sources give it historical “chops” but it’s a very human, sensitive story as well, told with discernment and compassion.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are respectfully advised that this publication contains names and images of deceased persons and culturally sensitive information.
Wow. It is June, but I predict now that this will be the best book I read all year.
In 1934, when the events in this book took place, white Australians didn’t speak of Uluru. Instead it was Ayers Rock, and few people ever saw it. Since then, it has loomed large in the Australian imagination: Lindy and Azaria Chamberlain, that Qantas advertisement “still calling Australia home” filmed on top of it, the controversy over the closure of the walk, and most recently the Uluru Statement from the Heart (which we seem content to praise for its lyricism while the government and conservative media sidle away from its content). Uluru is seen as the ‘heart’ of the Australian desert and an immediately recognizable image.
But it has a darker history, that McKenna explores in this book. In 1934, Anangu man Yokununna was shot in a cave nestling within Uluru by Northern Territory policeman Bill McKinnon. McKinnon was lauded by those purveyors of the image of the Wild Outback – think Frank Clunes, think Northern Territory politicians – as a ‘man’s man’ from the days when ‘the blacks’ needed a strong hand.
A Board of Enquiry was set up into the shooting. It had an interesting composition. It was headed by John Cleland, Professor of Pathology and the University of Adelaide; Vin White, recently appointed Assistant Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory; John Sexton, Baptist preacher and secretary of the South Australian Aborigines’ Friends’ Association, Charles Mountford, amateur anthropologist, and Ted Strehlow, the young linguist (p.84). Amazingly, this Board of Enquiry actually travelled to ‘Ayers Rock’ and the site of the shooting, an arduous journey by jeep and camel over sandhills, staying at camps and stations along the way. Even more amazingly, along with his aboriginal tracker, McKinnon himself accompanied them as accused, cook and guide. By the campfire at night, he would regale them with his stories of the outback by camel. At the rock, he exhumed Yokununna’s body and packed it for return to Adelaide, a process that appalled Strehlow, and shaped his views of British justice for the rest of his life (p.96). The Board of Enquiry came to its decision. It was the 1930s: I think that you know the result, although it was more nuanced than you might think.
The story of the shooting and Bill McKinnon takes up a large chunk of this book, with the ‘Lawman’ section taking up 90 pages. Here McKenna tells McKinnon’s story, painting for us the picture of a hard-bitten, laconic, tough policeman not opposed to roughing-up the men he arrested, punctilious in his record keeping, and a keen photographer. It is followed by another weighty section ‘Uluru’ which is 60 pages in length. Here McKenna himself steps into the picture, an academic historian, alternately drawn to and repelled by McKinnon’s ‘type’. I sometimes bridle at the historian-as-detective trope that is used to pump up the narrative in order to make a history more ‘saleable’, but here it is absolutely justified. Coming to a case some 80 years later, and in a world where the politics of indigenous history are changing but still contested, McKenna tracks down some interesting leads and sources, some of which make him reflect on the sheer, remorseless plunder of indigenous country, others which challenge the ethics of doing history. I think that it says something about the power of this book that I don’t want to tell you about the twists and turns his research takes- I want you to read the book yourself.
In a way, the murders in this book feel a long way away. They seem encapsulated by the shorts and pith helmet that McKinnon adopted, and the racist “dying pillow” tropes of the past. Then you see a video of one of the witnesses on YouTube and you realize that this is not so far away.
This is a beautifully written, and beautifully presented book. I didn’t expect a page-turner, but I found one. Nor did I expect to find so many photographs, some taken by McKinnon, others taken by McKenna himself and so many beautifully produced maps. In his afterword, McKenna explains that in embarking on the book, he intended to write a companion book to his earlier From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories. That 2016 book explored four places on the littoral edge of the continent, that also hovered on the edge of Australia’s historical consciousness at the time. With this book, he moved from the edge into the heart of the country- until McKinnon’s story ‘hijacked’ his intention. He promises a third book, more personal in focus, about places he has lived in Australia and overseas, encapsulating his research and thinking over the last decade (p.215). I suspect that it will be worth waiting for. In the meantime, this book should win the Prime Ministers Prize for Australian History. I won’t hold my breath for that one.
South-western Queensland and the rural backlands of Andalusia in Spain are two landscapes and histories that rarely mentioned in the same breath. However, they are not dissimilar to look at: indeed, the image on the front cover could be of Australia’s red centre or the arid desert regions of Andalusia. I suspect by the red tones that suffuse the photograph that it is of Australia, but blood is red too, and it has soaked into the landscape of both settings. In Queensland there were the barely acknowledge massacres of indigenous Australians as settlers moved westward; in Andalusia, there were the bloody atrocities on both sides during the Spanish Civil War.
There are few other people whose knowledge spans both locations, apart from fleeting visits by most travellers. This is where Hispanist and cultural historian Luke Stegemann comes in. He travels the backroads of Queensland as a boxing referee, while he refers to Spain as his ‘second patria‘. Deeply familiar with both, he brings them together in what is described as a “literary examination” of landscape, violence and memory in the two places.
He doesn’t actually describe what a “literary examination” or a “literary meditation” is, but I assume that it is a drawing together of the visions of other writers about an event or place. Certainly, he does reference other authors, but this is no mere desktop activity. He physically visits many of the places that he writes about, mainly as an outside observer. He marries the literary and experiential into a discursive, poetic, beautifully shaped exploration of questions about the memories that a landscape can hold, and the tenacity with which those memories take hold, despite the tacit or overt agreement to deny them.
This book employs two scenarios- the mid-nineteenth century pastoral frontier of south-west Queensland, and a series of early twentieth-century civilian massacres in southern Spain – as pathways towards examining the ways history is turned over and inspected, sometimes with fascination, sometimes with disgust, and its angles then polished for specific cultural and political purposes. Both scenarios are at the centre of contemporary debates around the need to tell, and approved methods of telling, troubled – perhaps better to say infamous – aspects of national history.
The opening chapters wrestle with the ideas of memory and forgetting, memorializing through graveyards and forgetting through unnamed massacre sites. He shuttles between Australia and Spain, using the writing from one culture to illuminate the other. In places this seems like a linguistic game, with chapters titled ‘The verb that has no name’ or ‘The Language of Eden’. The passing of generations and their knowledge is described grammatically:
The past tense soon closes down the present perfect nature of that claim: people have seen becomes, forever, people saw. Descendants remain, but the last of the witnesses are gone. The final death is often unremarked for who knows who is the last of the witnesses?…Each day, each year, each decade, periods of history move further away and we are left with an imperfect detritus. Windows are closed, doors shut, voices silenced, graves sealed.
The book is mainly based on the Australian experience, with the Iberian example used as a point of both comparison and contrast. The heart of the book lies in the two long chapters ‘Threnody’ (which I confess I had to look up – it means “a wailing ode, song, hymn or poem of mourning composed or performed as a memorial to a dead person”) and ‘Iberian Hinterland’.
The ‘Threnody’ chapter, at 50 pages, has the structure of a guided tour across the landscape of south-west Queensland. At each stop, he gives us a description of the landscape and a short history of the ‘interactions’ that took place there. He intersperses this with the local and amateur histories of these places, which generally celebrate the ‘progress’ of settlement and the ‘success’ of ‘dispersal’.
We have a duty to look unsparingly at the acts committed. We can now both see and understand the absurd vanity of the acquisitive graziers, to say nothing of the wretched illegality of their land grabs; nevertheless our contemporary morality is of limited use in grappling with this history. Unavoidably, the expansion of the Europeans across south-west Queensland involved tremendous cruelty and episodes of outright violence that mark our national history, though this fact must be tempered with the knowledge of acts of tenderness and attempts at understanding on both sides, and what were often immediate and close relationships between Indigenous people and settlers.
Nonetheless, as he points out, in order to considered these acts of goodwill, “it is first necessary to climb over the bodies. The toll cannot be avoided.” P. 118 On the Massacre Map produced by the University of Newcastle, the area of South West Queensland is not studded with dots (as the coastal areas are) but when you do click on the massacres, they are of huge numbers of people. I have read of frontier violence before, but it was generalIy deployed against small groups of warriors, or family groups of women and children. I hadn’t imagined 300 people being massacred, as at Bulloo River. Imagine it. The vision is horrifying.
In the succeeding ‘Iberian Hinterland’ chapter, at 63 pages in length, he takes a similar approach, although here he overlays the bloody Civil War history with the tourist itinerary, which exists largely oblivious to what happened less than a century before. I remember reading in the guide book that I took with me to Andalusia just a few years ago, there was still sensitivity about the Civil War, and to not ask pointed questions. But unlike the anonymity and paucity of Indigenous deaths in Australia, there is “a paper trail and a line of bones” that testify to a national total of some 115,000 murdered behind nationalist lines, and 55,000 behind Republican lines (p.135). With the passing of the Law of Historic Memory in 2007 there has been a deliberate political decision that the tacit silence about this slaughter will be broken; that bodies will be exhumed; that Franco will be shifted from the Valley of the Fallen to a private family vault.
Just as there is no turning away from the brutal slaughter of Indigenous people in south-west Queensland, there is no turning away from the indiscriminate killing of tens of thousands of innocent people in the first months of Spain’s civil conflict. And it has been the slow revelation of these details, the political environment into which they have been released, and the arguments they have triggered around questions of memory, truth, justice, compensation and reconciliation, and where these might find their place in a modern democracy, that have added weight to what might otherwise have been just one more collection of twentieth-century bones- anonymous, roadside or forest-deep- abandoned to their violent quiet.
Stegemann sees a similar movement at work here in Australia too, as the Great Australian Silence (in Stanner’s words) is finally being broken down. In particular he points to the Uluru Statement (awarded the 2021 Sydney Peace Prize but still shamefully suspended in limbo four years later). But he points out that reconciliation is hard work. The passing and implementation of the Law of Historic Memory in Spain has been fraught, and is likely to become even more so with the rise of populism. In Australia, the ideological ravine scours ever deeper with social media and a shrill press.
This really is a beautifully written book. You could open any page and find a paragraph that is beautifully crafted and insightful. It has high expectations of the reader. The dual emphasis on Indigenous Australia and Andalusia particularly appealed to me because my interests align along those tracks as well, but also because it illustrates the way that our learning in one field illuminates and enriches the other fields of knowledge that we encounter.
Obviously Sebastian Barry (middle-aged, White, Irish male) didn’t read the memo on cultural appropriation when he wrote this book in the narrative voice of a teenaged, lesbian Lakota girl.
I am Winona. In early times I was Ojinjintka, which means rose. Thomas McNulty tried very hard to say this name, but he failed, and so he gave me my dead cousin’s name because it was easier in his mouth. Winona means first-born. I was not first-born.
When we meet Winona, she has already been swept up into a white man’s world. And if you have read Barry’s earlier book Days without End, you have already met Winona, when she is adopted by Thomas McNulty and his Indian-heritage lover John Cole after her family is killed in a massacre attended by McNulty and Cole themselves. It is now 1870 and the unconventional family are living together on Lige Mangan’s tobacco farm outside Paris, Tennessee, along with former slaves Tennyson and Rosalee Bouguereau. Winona, growing into womanhood, is shyly entering into a naive and rather ambivalent engagement with Jas Jonski, a Polish boy who works at a nearby store. Plied with whisky, she is raped and does not even have the words for what has happened to her. Nor can she remember who raped her, and her shame and uncertainty triggers off a cascade of other events.
The Civil War might be over and the Union may have won, but racism and menace are quickly rising in this former Confederate area, especially for ‘others’: Native Americans, freed slaves and even Union soldiers – especially if their homosexuality became public knowledge . I’ve been listening to Heather Cox Richardson’s series on Reconstruction, but history alone cannot capture the feeling of impotence against the night-riders and the inexorable closing in of racism clothed in official dress, as positions at the head of militias and the courts are turned over to racists. The ‘goodies’ are not always good: nor are the ‘baddies’ completely bad.
This book is part of the McNulty/Dunne family that Barry has been exploring through his fiction over many years. In many of these books, the connection is only by surname and a bit of back history. This book, however, is more closely tied to Days without End. I can only imagine that new readers would be baffled by the cross-dressing and loving relationship between McNulty and Cole, and backwards references to murder and jail.
When you think about it, Barry really is pushing the boundaries of plausibility with a homosexual adoptive couple, an adopted Lakota daughter, and then her falling in love with another young Native American girl. That he manages to do this so quietly and naturally speaks to the complexity of his characters and the contradictions of the world that they face. My reading of this book was really enhanced by my recent listening to podcasts about Reconstruction, and I think that I enjoyed it even more than Days without End.