Beautiful story of Odette and Sissy Brwon and the love the have for each other. Set against the backdrop of the horrendous treatment of Indigenous people in Australia at the time it was uncomfortable and distressing to read at times. It is almost unfathomable for me that anyone was treated this way in Australia and it shows just how ignorant I have been. I am grateful to the author for describing life in such detail so that I can understand more. I loved the characters and I felt I really got to know them . I loved the almost plain style of writing - but I mean that in a good way - that gets to the point. I love the hope that infuses this story.
This was an interesting story told with heart. But for me the writing style lacked the depth I enjoy and the story seemed, too obviously, to be a vehicle to highlight the historical injustices. That said, l am glad I read it.
Odette Brown’s daughter Lila disappeared years ago, and she lives with her granddaughter Sissy (Cecily) on the Aboriginal fringe of Deane, a small (fictional) country town. This is Australia in the 1960s, before the 1967 referendum, when Indigenous locals are controlled and ‘protected’ by the Act and when fair-skinned Indigenous children are frequently removed from their families. Odette has managed to avoid this, but the arrival of a new policeman in town changes everything.
‘It is my duty to uplift children such as Cecily and I will not fail her.’
Odette and Sissy are treated well by some white people such as Henry Lamb (the local second-hand dealer) and ignored by Bill Shea (the alcoholic policeman who is about to be replaced) but Odette must be constantly vigilant.
Until the new policeman arrives, Odette and Sissy get by. Odette, once a domestic, is now a self-employed artist. She sells her greeting cards to a retailer in the nearest town, but:
‘Without citizenship, Odette could not open an independent bank account.’
Without permission, Odette is not allowed to leave town. And she’s unlikely to get permission from the new policeman. Unfortunately, Odette is not Sissy’s guardian, neither is her missing mother. In pre-1967 referendum Australia, Sissy is automatically a ward of the state.
Can Odette protect Sissy? Sissy has a pale skin, courtesy of a white father and is at risk of being taken. Odette teaches Sissy to respect the ways of the old people and of the country. She reminds Cissy about connections:
‘You need to know all of these people,’ she said, ‘and you must remember them.’
What will Odette and Cissy need to do in order to stay together? What follows is courageous; a tribute to the Indigenous women who’ve been able to hold families together despite the odds and in the face of official obstruction.
In fewer than 300 pages, Mr Birch managed to grab and hold my attention. His fictional characters and their struggles are an uncomfortable reminder of a past that is far from over for many. It’s a moving and powerful story, one which I’d like to believe is consigned to history but know is not. Yet.
Author Indigenous Australian writer who teaches at Uni of Melbourne and is a frequent guest on the ABC and at writers festivals. He has published both short and long fiction. Shadowboxing (2006), a collection of ten interlinked stories about growing up in Fitzroy, Melbourne was excellent, as was his first novel Blood (2011), which was listed for the Miles Franklin. This is his third novel. I haven’t read his second, Ghost River (2015).
Premise Until the 1960s, Aboriginal people living in Australia had to seek official approval to travel outside their local area. All indigenous children under 16 were under the legal guardianship of a Commonwealth offical known as the Chief Protector of Aborigines, who was authorised to remove children forcibly from their families. In rural and remote communities, this responsibility was delegated to the senior local policeman, many of whom exercised their powers with considerably more diligence than sensitivity. Not surprisingly, Aboriginal people were reluctant to give up their offspring, who came to be known as the Stolen Generations.
Plot Odette is an aboriginal woman living in a remote fictional community with her teenage daughter Lila, who gets pregnant but refuses to name the father. The colour of baby Sissy’s skin when she is born gives us a clue to his racial background. Lila takes off for “the big smoke” leaving grandma to care for Sissy: not an uncommon occurrence. Lowe, the local copper, tries to remove her; Odette battles to hold on to her. Some local white folk are supportive, especially the junk yard owner who is supposedly “not all there” after being hit in the head when young. Others not so much. Stuff happens. Resolution of sorts occurs.
Characters The protagonists are well drawn and sympathetic. The bad guys are suitably malevolent.
Prose High quality, evocative, never overdone.
Bottom line Uncomfortable to read for an old white guy at times, but a worthy addition to the published literature about the experiences of the Stolen Generations. The author’s best work so far in my opinion.