Thursday, 17 September 2020

The White Girl by Tony Birch

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

“Welfare? Oh, you’ve looked after the welfare of our young girls for a long time now. Most of them are dead, disappeared, or were sent mad by what you did to them in institutions. That’s not welfare, Sergeant. I think your own law would call that murder.”

For the last few years, I have made a point of searching out and reading books by Canadian indigenous authors. But to the best of my recollection, the only book by an Australian indigenous author I had read before this was the memoir, Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara.

The White Girl is a novel, set in the 1960s, thirty years after the events in Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence. But it was still a time when State police and ‘Welfare Boards’ had extraordinary powers of Australian Aboriginal people, who were not considered citizens and did not have voting rights.

Odette Brown is an Aboriginal woman living in Deane, a fictional mining town in a remote part of Australia, with her granddaughter Sissy. Thanks to her unknown white father, Sissy is blonde and fair-skinned, which makes her of particular interest to the Welfare Board. The local police control where they can travel and can, on the smallest excuse, take Sissy into their custody.

The only escape from this control is a so-called ‘exemption certificate,’ which can be issued by the Welfare Board if character references a provided by two white people of good standing. But it comes at a heavy price – the bearer must promise not to associate with other Aboriginal people, essentially forcing them to renounce their own families.

When the thirteen-year-old Sissy starts to receive unwanted attentions from the local White Trash, Odette is forced take desperate measures to protect her.

The White Girl is a story of love, resilience and family. The relationship between Odette and Sissy, though tinged with sadness, is brimming with warmth and humour. As readers, we are sucked along on the dangerous tightrope Odette must walk in order to live with dignity in a country where she is denied basic human rights.

By the 1960s, Australia might have moved beyond the brutal cruelty that leads Odette to say “Deane carried the blood or so many Aboriginal people on his hands it could never be scrubbed away, not from the man himself or the town that carried his name.” Yet the white settler community could still convince itself that the Aboriginal people were like children, incapable of looking after themselves or making decisions about their own welfare. As with indigenous communities around the world, things have moved on, but there is still a long way to go.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara, The Break by Katherena Vermette

Avoid If You Dislike: Being reminded of the shameful attitude of settle communities towards indigenous peoples

Perfect Accompaniment: A long soak in the bath

Genre: Indigenous Literature, Recent Historical Fiction, Australian Fiction

Buy This Book Here

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