Book Review: True North by Brenda Niall

Book Cover of True North by Brenda Niall

True North: The Story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack by Brenda Niall, (Text Publishing: Melbourne, 2012).

I lost my carparking ticket so I bought a book.  The person at the shopping centre information desk informed me that I could either pay $40 to get out of the car park or $10 if I bought something from the shops at the centre.  It made sense to buy something but what? I was uninspired and just wanted to get out of the soulless place as soon as possible.  I spotted a bookshop and decided to purchase a book.

It was one of those chain book shops with plenty of books but nothing that excited me enough to purchase.  To be fair, my lack of enthusiasm was probably more due to my lack of time and annoyance at myself for losing the carparking ticket.  I had just been to the library and had heaps of reading waiting for me in the car and home.  I did not need to add more to my reading list!

After quickly browsing the shelves of history books and biographies I decided to save time by going to the counter and asking if they stocked some particular titles I was interested in.  I named three authors but not one title I wanted was in stock. The queue at the checkout grew longer.  All I wanted to do was to purchase a book and go home.  I grabbed the latest Brenda Niall biography from the new releases stand near the counter and bought it.

This is not a good start for a book that I hoped to enjoy.  Brenda Niall deserves better than this. Niall is a sensitive and fastidious biographer.  There are no short cuts in her research and I thoroughly enjoyed other books she has written: the biography of the Boyd family, The Boyds:  A Family Biography, and an autobiography, Life Class.

True North:  The Story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack is a biography of two sisters, one an artist, the other a writer.  They were members of the famous Durack family that were pastoralists in the Kimberley, Western Australia.  They grew up in Perth while their father lived on the station hundreds of miles away.  After they left school in the early 1930s they lived and worked on the family holdings in order to save money for a trip to Europe.  It was during this period in the north as young adults that they developed a bond with the land and its people who dominated the rest of their lives.  Niall observes, “their time in the Kimberley was far more important for the sisters than the overseas travel that followed”.

Elizabeth and Mary Durack developed strong relationships with the Aborigines at the station – relationships that would endure for the rest of their lives.  They were concerned about the difficulties faced by Aborigines as a result of damaging government policies and hostile treatment by some of the white people on the stations and the police. They began to express this concern to other family members and later spoke out in public.  An article written by Mary Durack and published in The West Australian in 1944 is just one example of the forthright manner in which she shared her views in the media.

For most of their lives Mary and Elizabeth Durack lived far away from the Kimberley, but they frequently returned.  It was their sanctuary, their place of respite.  It was also the source of the inspiration that they needed for their creative work.  For Elizabeth, a critical period in her artistic development was the work she did next to Aboriginal artist, Jubul, on the banks of the Ord River.  The subjects of Mary’s books, Keep Him My Country (1955), Kings in Grass Castles (1959) and The Rock and the Sand (1969) were from north-west Australia.

Place, a recurrent theme in Niall’s work, looms large in this book.  Niall also grapples with the other  key issue that confronted the Durack sisters throughout their lives – identity.  The sisters were burdened by their family’s history as pastoralists.  This identity negatively affected the reception of their work at times.  They had to muster talent, persistence and audacity in order to pierce the veil of assumptions that their surname evoked.

Identity is the theme of the most fascinating chapter of the book.  Niall devotes a significant space in her work to consideration of Elizabeth’s controversial decision to paint under a “nom de brush” adopting the name, Eddie Burrup.  Her action in assuming an Aboriginal identity through Eddie Burrup and entering her work in a competition for indigenous artists horrified the art world.  Niall argues that this reflected the burden of identity carried by Elizabeth.  It was a dishonest attempt to free herself from being a white woman descended from a family of pastoralists.  However, in a thoroughly argued discussion Niall concludes that her assumed identity was a misguided act of reconciliation on her part, not appropriation.

The chapter on ‘Eddie Burrup’ is the highlight of the book and is reason alone to read it.  Another interesting thread that runs throughout the book is the strong friendships that the sisters developed with the local Aborigines as this confronts our understanding of relationships between Aborigines and white people at the time.  I would have liked Niall to explore this further.  What did the Aboriginal women think of Mary and Elizabeth Durack?  Did the Aboriginal women perceive their relationship with the Durack sisters in the same way that the Durack sisters understood the friendship?  In Niall’s defence most of the women had died by the time that she researched this book which would have made it difficult to explore these questions.

Aside from these aspects of the book I felt that it was not one of Niall’s best.  The book is structured as a typical cradle to grave biography.  There is nothing essentially wrong with this but the opening chapter needed to be more engaging.  The notes I jotted while reading the book were sporadic, sometimes I was stimulated by the biography, at other times I was simply reading on, waiting for the next absorbing episode. The relationship between the two sisters was a strong element in the earlier and middle chapters which Niall gave less attention to towards the end of the book. Maybe this is simply a reflection of a diminishing connection between the sisters as they grew older, or did the author simply lose this focus? In the last chapter Niall imagines what Elizabeth was thinking near the end of her life while sitting and watching while the daylight faded.  This scene with the repeated questions “where was” she/they, came across as hackneyed and was a disappointing element in her concluding chapter.

At the same time I appreciated Niall’s handling of Elizabeth’s sexual liaisons.  She did not shy from mentioning them, but she did not place much weight on them, giving what I felt was a balanced and fair account.  Other biographers may have treated this material very differently. I also enjoyed Niall’s reviews of Mary’s books and her discussion of Elizabeth’s views of the history wars.

There is no doubt that Brenda Niall has chosen her subjects well.  Elizabeth and Mary Durack made important contributions to the artistic and literary life of Australia. Understanding their connections with Aboriginal people will help us to develop a more nuanced and complex understanding of the diversity of white/indigenous relationships at the time.

Further Reading

This review was written as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

15 thoughts on “Book Review: True North by Brenda Niall

    • While I was driving home I started composing the opening paragraphs of this post and wrote them up as soon as I arrived. I have never started writing a book review before reading one page of the book before!

      I am glad that I read the book. It shows that something good can happen out of those minor irritating moments that everyday life throws up.


  1. I’m interested to read this review because I’ve seen a not particularly favourable review in the press and a friend of mine (who also admires Brenda Niall) was a bit doubtful too. But I’ll probably eventually buy it anyway because I like to encourage my favourite writers. But I have to read her previous one, The Riddle of Father Hackett first…
    (This is a new rule I’ve made for myselt, to try to keep the TBR under control. I’m not buying an author’s new book till I’ve read the last one. No doubt I’ll break this one just as fast as I’ve broken all the other rules I’ve made!)


    • Yes, keeping the TBR pile under control is an ongoing tussle. I have a 3 shelf bookcase housing mine which is full. Last year I resolved not to buy another book until there was a gap in this bookcase. That resolution went out the window with the Australian Women Writers Challenge!

      The more I think about True North, the more I think that Brenda Niall missed the mark. There needed to be a much more searching exploration of the relationship that the Durack sisters had with Aborigines in the Kimberley. Overall I am disappointed with it – probably because I have enjoyed her other work so much. The Durack sisters are very interesting subjects. I hope another biographer has a go at writing about their lives soon.

      The Riddle of Father Hackett sounds like a fascinating book.


      • While I haven’t read the book, I agree with you in principle. I don’t know how anyone can write any kind of credible history of any pioneer or outback family without including the POV of the Aborigines they dispossessed, but the problem is the sources. As Anita Heiss’s Anthology of Aboriginal Literature shows, available Aboriginal writing up until fairly recently is very limited indeed, and what there is, is filtered through European eyes and you have to try and read between the lines to guess the level of anguish, dismay and anger they must have felt at the restrictions they faced, the impossibility of economic independence and the shocking life expectancy that decimated their friends, family and kin. The same is true of any interviews or ethnographic records from that period: they are all filtered through European eyes.
        Even the few extant letters from literate Aborigines pleading for help in some form or another show such remarkable restraint in their complaints that it’s obvious that they are constrained by the need to be respectful to people who had power over them.
        While perhaps some Aborigines came to be fond of the people they worked for (generally without pay), I’d interpret that as being much the same as the master/mistress-slave relationships that slave women in America might have formed. They’re not relationships of equals, and we hear about them only from one perspective, from people who had every reason to delude themselves or from observers who through ignorance or intent sanitised the issue.
        So, from the point of view of a reader alert to these issues, I want to see any historian or biographer casting a very sceptical eye over anything that claims friendships across the colour bar, noting in every relevant situation that the claim can’t be tested and should be treated with considerable caution.


      • I agree, there is a problem with the lack of evidence and interpreting evidence. Historians are working on methods to deal with this difficult issue, which is a particular problem in the area of indigenous history, but is also an issue in women’s history, working class history… As you say, it is a problem wherever there is an imbalance in power between two people.


      • I’ll add it to my lengthening list of posts to write. I’m still working on a post and a project inspired by some of your other comments, so it might be a while. But thankyou for the inspiration you have been giving me through your comments and blog!


      • I just realised that I have written about the methods that historians can use to interrogate the silence or muffling of indigenous voices in the archive in my review of Anna Johnston’s, The Paper War. I would recommend you read Anna Johnston’s book as she discusses this in considerable detail.


  2. What a great discussion of a very important issue. I want to share both your comments with everyone, especially those doing Lisa’s Indigenous project, I think just to raise the issue esepcially about any cross-cultural, cross-power structure friendship is an important step. Thanks for doing it here. One solution, only partial of course, is to suppliment what we can know with sensitive and informed speculation/fiction. I have recently reviewed several books experimenting with this approach on other topics. Mann, Talented Women, and Getz, Abina and the Important Men.


    • Yes, the reason why the history is so sensitive is that through this we are dealing with a difficult issue for us today. After reading this biography by Brenda Niall I read a book written by Mary’s daughter, Robin Millar, about her work as a flying nurse in NW Australia during the 60s and early 70s. At times it was an uncomfotable read because of the pall of patronising attitudes and lack of real connection with Aboriginal people. I thought while reading it that I was too close to this era and its attitudes and that is why I was feeling so awkward.

      I’m not a great fiction reader, but I agree that this is the real value of fiction. In the imaginary world the author can explore difficult issues and suggest different approaches.


  3. I totally agree that we should raise questions of whites who claim friendship with blacks. I’d add the need for caution about blacks who publically claim those friendships and want to keep them. But, for what it’s worth. In her autobiography, Rita Huggins goes to great length to explain just how and why whites’ friendship has been valuable to her.


  4. Pingback: Literary works 2012 – what’s being reviewed? | Australian Women Writers Challenge

  5. Pingback: True North by Brenda Niall – some notes on biographical method | A Biographer in Perth

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