Review: Paint me Black by Claire Henty-Gebert

Book cover of Paint Me Black

Paint Me Black by Claire Henty-Gebert (Aboriginal Studies Press: Canberra, 2005).

One day I was reading brief accounts in the newspaper written by some people who were over one hundred years old.  And there she was, Margaret Somerville, the link to the book Paint Me Black, that was waiting on my bedroom floor to be read.

I was a missionary, I went to Croker Island, just off Darwin, and was a cottage mother at a home for part-Aboriginal children. The government had asked the church to take over care of these children. I’d been up there a few months when Darwin was bombed and then we had to be evacuated. The government and the church worked together to get us to Otford, a [then] campsite on the NSW south coast. It took six weeks to get all 95 children there. We spent four years at Otford and once the war was over,  I was the only staff member that went back to Croker Island. I was there for  24 years.

Sydney Morning Herald, 4 March 2013.

Claire Henty-Gebert was one of those children evacuated from Croker Island under the care of Margaret Somerville and her fellow missionaries.  Henty-Gebert’s memoir, Paint Me Black, is an absorbing read.  The clarity of her language and the power of her story engrossed me in this book. She has an amazing story to tell.

Henty-Gebert’s mother was Aboriginal and her father was white.  She was born sometime in the 1920s in a remote part of the Northern Territory.  Along with thousands of children like her she was removed from her Aboriginal family at a young age.

She was first brought up in the Bungalow, a government institution in Alice Springs with other Aboriginal children who had been removed from their parents.  Then in November 1941 Clare and other children were moved to Croker Island off the north coast of Australia.  They arrived there just days before the Japanese strike at Pearl Harbour.

Women and children were evacuated from the Northern Territory, but not the Aboriginal children at Croker Island.  They were taught how to identify Japanese planes – a useful skill as the island was on a major wartime air route.

Darwin was bombed by the Japanese on 19th February 1942.  The children and missionaries were still on the island and now potentially in great danger.  In early 1942 they left the island and walked through Arnhem Land to Nourlangie.   They spent some time at the military base at Pine Creek which was where American soldiers were based:

The American soldiers were very good to us. Our camp was made ‘out of bounds’, and they gave us a guard to watch over us every night.  Bombing raids were conducted over Darwin every day now, and enemy planes were coming down over Pine Creek and as far south as Katherine.

p. 26

From Pine Creek the children and their carers continued an epic journey south to their wartime refuge near Sydney.

On the map above, ‘A’ is Croker Island, ‘B’ is Nourlangie where the children walked to from the coast, and ‘C’ is Pine Creek where the children rested briefly on their way south. (If this map does not load properly, the problem should be fixed by refreshing the page.)

After reading this gripping account I was left with wanting to know more.  Claire Henty-Gebert was young when she was evacuated and so would not have been privy to all the details of what was occurring. Even the adults would not have completely understood the situation because of the censorship and general confusion of being in a war zone.

This is not just a story about wartime Australia.  Clare Henty-Gebert shares her life in Darwin after the war, her experience of Cyclone Tracy and her quest to find her family from which she was removed so long ago. I don’t want to spoil the story for you so I won’t reveal any more.

There are many ways that a person can respond to misfortune and injustice in their lives.  I was struck by how Henty-Gebert talks with gratitude about her life.  How many of us would do that when faced by the same circumstances as someone who was taken from her family at a young age and raised in an institution?

Yet there was sadness in Henty-Gebert’s heart:

… I would never see my mother again. To this day I don’t understand why I can’t remember being taken away from my family… I believe I will find the answer to my loss of memory one day and hopefully my family research will help me piece together the missing years of my childhood.

p.8

I was left with a concern that the book leaves the impression that the serious injustices that Henty-Gebert suffered in her life were not that bad because the author does not share many negative feelings she has with the reader.  Yesterday I read a review written by Heidi  Stabb of Trisha Goddard’s memoir, Trisha, As I Am.  Heidi made a comment about Goddard’s memoir which may be pertinent to this memoir by Claire Henty-Gebert:

The style itself tends towards the breezy, and there often seems to be a surface shallowness. But I think the breeziness belies a great deal of hurt for Goddard, and that skimming over the surface is the only way that the story was going to be told.

If I wrote a memoir (which I have no intention of doing) I would not want to share many negative things that have happened to me as I don’t want to dwell on such things and I would not want to hurt those close to me.  So I respect Claire Henty-Gebert’s decision not to delve too deeply into such matters.  I hope that readers of this memoir take this into account and are alert to the occasional allusion that life was harder than the life portrayed in this book.

This is a moving story and a gripping book which I think many readers would enjoy reading.  Claire Henty-Gebert has lived a full life and certainly has a story to tell.

Additional Information

Indigenous Literature Week 2013This review is my contribution towards the Indigenous Literature Week Challenge run by Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog. This Challenge focuses on NAIDOC Week, 7-14 July, but you can add reviews until the end of July.

Logo for Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012The Australian Women Writers’ Challenge encourages reviewers to support the Indigenous Literature Week Challenge.  If reviewers wish they can also post reviews of books by Australian indigenous authors on the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge website.

gwc-logoThis is also my inaugural contribution to the Global Women of Color Challenge run by Marilyn Brady. I hope  that readers of Stumbling Through the Past also support this Challenge.

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8 thoughts on “Review: Paint me Black by Claire Henty-Gebert

  1. What an extraordinary story – and what a brilliant idea to map that journey in your review: it shows that this is an epic walk like the one in The Rabbit Proof Fence.
    I think you are right about the reluctance to ‘tell all’ in a memoir. I have recently learned some aspects of family history that have been kept private for a lifetime, and through my friendship with a number of Holocaust survivors, I have seen at first hand how many are torn between telling their stories – so that it may never happen again – and suppressing past tragedies – in order to focus on a successful life instead. (Now that I am learning to think like an historian LOL) I am realising that autobiographical records have all kinds of reasons for all kinds of omissions, and that we can never take them at face value.
    Thank you for your contribution to ILW, it is much appreciated:)
    Lisa

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    • I’m reading another memoir by an Aboriginal author at the moment and have been reflecting on how Aboriginal memoirs lead us to focus not only on the importance of understanding our family history but also on the difficulties in sharing family history frankly to the public. We may think that hearing a history from a participant gives us the most accurate depiction of that time in the past, but this is not the case. We have to be content with realising that we will never have a completely accurate understanding of the past – just as we have to come to terms with the fact that we don’t understand or know everything that impacts on our lives while we are living in the present.

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      • Yes, that’s it. And maybe it’s even harder for indigenous authors because there may be pressure to tell just because so much of Black History is missing from the historical record. I’m just writing my review of Sweet Water Stolen Land ( a novel, based on true events) at the moment and am astonished by the contrasting portrayal of one of the historical figures in mainstream records (e.g. the ADB) and what’s in the novel, which seems to be based on oral history.

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  2. I saw that ‘Croker River Exodus’ documentary on TV just recently (I think- or was it something I recorded years ago and have only just got round to watching?). I was touched by how much these old women still loved and admired Margaret Somerville, and what stalwart, optimistic, grounded women they are.

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  3. Hello, I am Claire Henty-Gebert’s eldest grand daughter. Thank you for the reading her life story.

    I grew up never hearing a bad thing about her experiences still to this day. My nanna has always instilled into her children & grandchildren to forget & forgive people. It was the way she looked at life in general & I know it was because of her being taken away from her mother, her land, her culture & her life.

    Margaret Somerville is certainly loved by all Croker Island children & when she visited Darwin in a few years before she passed away. She met up with some of the Croker Island children they had a photo taking of them all. And you can see how much they loved her by they way they all wanted to touch her in that photo. They all loved & respected her because she would not leave them behind.

    I am very proud of my grandmother who only started this journey to do research on her mother’s side of the family but ended up being contacted by family members from her Father’s side, The Henty’s. She was then talked into doing a book. Which our family are all proud of her & her book.

    So thank you all

    Isadora Claire Roberts

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    • Thank you so much for taking the time to write this comment Isadora! Your mother’s story is inspiring. Her attitude despite all the injustices she suffered is an example to all. You are fortunate to have such a wonderful grandmother.

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  4. Again thank you all for reading her book. I know she has been encouraged to write another book soon about an updated book with meeting her father’s family & other stuff.

    We know we are very lucky to have such a beautiful mother, grandmother, & great grandmother. She has just turned 85 years young.

    Talk to you all again soon.

    Isadora

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