A Lesson in Life: Book Review of Auntie Rita

Warning: This post contains references to Aboriginal people who are now deceased. The books and links referred to in this post may also contain references and images of deceased Aboriginal people.

ilw-2016Each July, book blogger Lisa Hill encourages bloggers to review books written by indigenous authors from around the world. She chooses ‘Indigenous Literature Week’ to coincide with the Australian annual celebration of indigenous culture, NAIDOC Week.

Book cover of Auntie Rita

Auntie Rita by Rita Huggins and Jackie Huggins (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994).

This week was NAIDOC Week so I searched my book shelves for a book to read by an indigenous author. As I have already reviewed two new books by Australian Aboriginal authors this year (Finding Eliza by Larissa Behrendt and Pictures from my memory by Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis) I decided to review a highly regarded book from the 1990s. Twenty-two years after it was first published I have finally read Auntie Rita by Rita Huggins and Jackie Huggins.

Rita Huggins shares her life from her earliest years living on her country in what we know as Carnarvon Gorge in Queensland. The land sustained her Bidjara-Pitjara people but born in 1922, Rita Huggins and her people were in the sights of a government which was forcibly removing Aboriginal people from their land and into reserves. Rita Huggins tells of the traumatic day when she and her family were herded onto a crowded cattle truck and taken on a long journey south to what became known as the Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve. She never lived on her country again.

This book is not a standard memoir. It is also a dialogue between Rita Huggins and her daughter Jackie. At various points through the narrative Jackie Huggins expands on points her mother makes, add her memories and sometimes challenges her mother. In doing this both mother and daughter are unsettling the memoir genre. We are all social beings. We not only live in a social context, we are challenged and have to adjust our thoughts and behaviours in response to those we live and work with. Yet writing a memoir is one of the most solitary practices. The dialogue in this memoir gives us a peek into a mother/daughter relationship. While Auntie Rita quite rightly dominates the book, the reader at times has the feeling that they are at a kitchen table listening to Auntie Rita talk about her life with Jackie sometimes chiming in with a comment about what her mother is saying. Auntie Rita says: Continue reading

Review: Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Book cover of Dark Emu

Dark Emu: Black seeds agriculture or accident by Bruce Pascoe (Broome, WA: Magabala Books, 2014).

While the Australian Historical Association conference was being held this week an important annual national celebration was taking place. This year the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Day of Commemoration Week, commonly known as NAIDOC Week runs from 6th to 13th July. Lisa Hill at the ANZ LitLovers Lit Blog runs the Indigenous Literature Week book reviewing challenge to coincide with NAIDOC Week each year.

It is tricky as I want to participate but each year it coincides with the Australian Historical Association Conference. There is nothing like a bit of determination to find a way though. Each year I choose two books to review, one by a female author and another by a male author. I read the first one in the weeks leading up to NAIDOC Week and post the review right at the beginning of the Week, but the other I struggle to read and review in NAIDOC Week. The review often comes out later… but I’ve managed to fit it in this year!

I had a wonderful day reading Dark Emu: Black seeds: agriculture of accident? by Bruce Pascoe. Engagingly written, full of interesting material and a modest 176 pages, it was the ideal end-of-conference read. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Book Review: My Bundjalung People by Ruby Langford Ginibi

Cover of book, My Bundjalung People

My Bundjalung People by Ruby Langford Ginibi, (University of Queensland Press, 1994).

Over the last couple of weeks I have immersed myself in histories written by Aboriginal people.  These historians not only revealed aspects of Australian history of which I had been previously unaware, they also made me ponder the process of historical research and writing.  This is why we need to read histories written by people from a different cultural background to our own.  It is not only the stories that they choose to share that will differ, their whole approach to history can cause us to examine how our history has been traditionally constructed.

Ruby Langford Ginibi was a Bundjalung woman from the north coast of New South Wales.  In 1990 and 1991 she made a series of trips back to her country, visiting her people and interviewing both black and white people about the history of this area of New South Wales.   She made these trips both to fulfil a yearning to return to her roots, as well as to gather material for a history of the Bundjalung people.  “We won’t be able to advance ourselves until white Australia knows our history”, she explained.

The important role that Aboriginal people played in the economic development of Australia is a strong theme throughout the book:

The Aboriginal stockmen and women virtually ran the livestock industry.  They also worked as midwives and nurses.  Aboriginal women were essential to the very survival of white families.  We deserve to get recognition, along with the rest of Australia’s pioneers.

Ruby Langford Ginibi, p. 100 Continue reading