The Power of Bones by Keelen Mailman

Book cover of The Power of Bones

The Power of Bones by Keelen Mailman, (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2014).

“I chose survival” says Keelen Mailman in her memoir, The Power of Bones. Powerful, painful and memorable, The Power of Bones lays bare the struggles and achievements of Aboriginal life in  Australia during the late twentieth century and more recently.

Mailman is an Aboriginal woman from south-west Queensland near Charleville. She had a hard childhood and a poor education but she has risen from this to be the first Aboriginal woman to run a commercial cattle station. This book is a lesson in never writing a person off, no matter how bleak their background appears to be.

Mailman is proud of her Bidjara culture. Her knowledge and commitment to the Bidjara people was recognised by one of the community elders who asked her to manage the Mount Tabor cattle station for the Bidjara. The work at the station is mentioned in passing, the focus of this memoir is family and culture.

The cultural and spiritual feeling was within me, always had been. Believe it or not, I’m a big softie. I might come across as a hard, tough person, but I have a heart and I hurt too. When I found a special place, with some of the old artwork, or even bones, I’d just sit down and cry… it was so touching to know this was another place we could look after.

Most recently Mailman helped to organise the return of the bones of Bidjara people stolen by collectors in the past and held in museums. She looks after the cultural sites on the Mount Tabor Station and is one of the participants in the Native Title Claim for the Bidjara people. Sadly for many Aboriginal people around Australia the Native Title process is a painful process that drags on for years and is expensive. Mailman shares just a few of the frustrations arising from this.

Keelen Mailman was a state finalist for Australian of the Year in 2007. She was the first Aboriginal woman to open Charleville Show and was selected for the Australian Rural Leadership program. These accolades disguise the awful difficulties that Mailman has endured.

There has been too much violence and abuse in Mailman’s life. As a child and as a woman her life has been ruptured by violence of all kinds. Yet her strength was evident before she was even fully grown. When she was fourteen she hid inside her home for a whole year, looking after her siblings because her mother was unable to. She was scared that the children would be taken away if the authorities found that she was missing school to look after them. This book is part of Mailman’s quest to take charge of her life by lifting the shame she has felt and speaking about the abuse. It is gut wrenching. Her achievements stand out even more through the telling of the abuse. It is a lesson in never writing people off just because they are brought up in poverty and violence.

…look at the heart within and not at the colour of the skin.

Racism hurts. Throughout the book Mailman recalls racist incidents and how she had to keep going despite the hardship they caused. When she was a child and her mother was ill they were harassed at their home by hoons with guns. “How low can you get?” asks Mailman. “What sort of person in what sort of town fires a gun and hurls rocks and disgusting abuse at a paralysed woman, with not much memory, and her children?” This is not something from our distant past. Mailman also talks about recent incidents that occurred in the twenty-first century. We know this is wrong. Why is it still happening?

That’s what I am: mum, dad, aunty, mechanic, plumber, tractor driver, fencer.

Mailman has worked hard all her life. If something needed to be done Mailman stepped up and did it. She represented herself at court in order to gain custody of her sister’s children even though it scared her and she had never been involved with courts in her life. She raised her sister’s children as well as her own and made sure they had better education than she had. She fixed cars and fences without any formal training or work experience. Keelen Mailman is courageous.

The Power of Bones is written as if Keelen Mailman is talking to the reader. There is a lot of Australian slang and cultural references. If you are not familiar with this you may want to consult online dictionaries such as the Australian National Dictionary Centre’s Meanings and Origins of Australian Words and Idioms. While that site does not have all the slang words mentioned in the book, it is fascinating as it explains how the words were born. The Australian-Slang Dictionary has more of the words and is very concise in its explanations. Just insert the word you want an explanation for in the ‘Define’ box at the top right to search for it.

A few years ago Keelen Mailman was selected for the Australian Rural Leadership program. As part of the program they visited rural areas in India. At the end of the trip many of the participants wanted to start a charity to help with poverty they had seen in India. Mailman disagreed. “This is all happening in our own country”, she said. “I don’t believe you have to go to the other side of the world to help save people.” She continued, “…India didn’t change me; there were too many reminders of my own people in their fringe dwellers’ camps.”

There were many times in Keelen Mailman’s life when neighbours and acquaintances could have done something to help Mailman and her family but they chose not to. There are too many people suffering in Australia. The Power of Bones reminds us to stop ignoring the distress of others. It is our responsibility to help our neighbours, our acquaintances and our family.

awwbadge_2014Indigenous Literature Week 2014Allen & Unwin supplied me with a review copy of this book. This review is part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge and to Indigenous Literature Week run by book blogger, Lisa Hill.

For the last couple of years Marilyn Brady has been running the Global Women of Color book reviewing challenge. Recently she has decided to discontinue it although she is the website is still available and is a good resource for books. Marilyn Brady continues to review books on her dynamic book blog, Me, You and Books. I would like to thank Marilyn for all the work she has done and continues to do online to promote books written by women of colour around the world.

12 thoughts on “The Power of Bones by Keelen Mailman

  1. Thanks for this review Yvonne. Keelen Mailman is obviously a woman of extraordinary strength and courage in her fight against racism and terrible disadvantage. Her achievements should be a source of pride, inspiration and learning for her Bidjara community and all other Australians. Your readers may be interested to see some related stories, posted on my blog this week, especially about Christina Green’s new book “The Life of Riley”.


    • Thanks for sharing your post Katherine and letting us know about Christina Green’s memoir. So much of what we know about contemporary Aboriginal history is written by Aboriginal people in memoirs.


  2. What courage it must have taken to revisit bad memories when writing this book, but how powerful it becomes as testimony when it’s done. Thank you for sharing this review, and thanks for linking to ILW. These personal histories are a major contribution to understanding history as it is being written now.


    • Thank you Lisa for organising Indigenous Literature week each year. This is going to be a busy week with the Australian Historical Association Conference happening in Brisbane. I’ve booked a day off next Saturday to read and review Bruce Pascoe’s latest book – looking forward to that!


  3. Thanks again to you, Yvonne, I look forward to hearing about Bruce Pascoe’s new one because I enjoyed his last one.
    BTW I must apologise for my tardy responses: I’m at my parents place in Qld, and although I have Telstra’s 4G mobile broadband here, half the time it doesn’t work. The only place it works consistently is out on the veranda – and it’s much too brisk to sit out there at night, it was only 8 degrees last night, doona plus blanket required!! I’ll be back home tomorrow so I’ll be able to download your posts about the history conference, I always look forward to that:)


  4. Pingback: Indigenous Literature Week 1-8 July 2012 | Stumbling Through the Past

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  6. Pingback: July 2014 Roundup: Diversity | Australian Women Writers Challenge

  7. Pingback: Histories and Life Writing: 2014 Wrap-up | New Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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