What I especially like about Jeanine Leane’s book, Purple threads, is how well she draws the universal out of the particular. That she does this is not unusual in itself. After all, this is what our favourite books tend to do. The interesting thing about Purple threads, though, is that the particular is an indigenous one. Even as I write this post my mind is flicking back-and-forth between thinking about the indigenous themes in the book and the more universal ones about family and relationships. More on that anon. First, I want to say a little about the book’s form, because ….
I’m not sure whether to call Purple threads a novel or a book of connected short stories, except I don’t think it matters much. What is significant is that the stories revolve around a mostly female-only indigenous family living on a small piece of land in the Gundagai area of New South Wales in the 1950s to 1960s. The main characters run through the whole book, and the stories are told pretty much chronologically. There could even be a plot line or two, but they are not strong and are not what drive us to read on. This form had an eerie familiarity as I was reading and I realised it was because it reminded me of another David Unaipon Award winning book I have reviewed here, Marie Munkara’s Every secret thing. Is this a coincidence – after all, there are similar books by non-indigenous writers – or should I go out on a limb and wonder whether this form reflects an indigenous way of story-telling? In addition to this similarity in form, these two books share a particular style of humour. Munkara’s is probably more belly-laugh, and is definitely more gut-wrenching, but both have a self-deprecating element, a willingness and ability to laugh at themselves, to see the absurd. It’s a form of humour we also see in Alexis Wright‘s Carpentaria. Okay, enough of that, back to the book itself.
The stories are told first person by Sunny (Sunshine) who lives with her sister Star, and her grandmother, Nan, and aunts, Boo (Beulah) and Bubby (Lily). Her mother, father, grandfather, more aunts and uncles, and others in the community, also appear in the book, but these five named characters are the focus. They are well differentiated. Nan is the down-to-earth matriarch of the group who doesn’t know how to read but “sure as hell know[s] how ta think”. Boo is independent and feisty, the one who takes action when action is needed. She loves the ancient Romans, particularly Empress Livia “who knew how to work behind the scenes”. Bubby, on the other hand, is the gentle, romantic one, who loves Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights. The stories chronicle the first two decades of Sunny’s life in this female-dominated household. There are anecdotes about walks with Aunty Boo, about spoilt Petal (Sunny and Star’s mother), and about interactions with neighbours, teachers and others in the community. Most of the stories are light, albeit with a good degree of bite, but some are dark, such as the story of the young white neighbour, Milli, who is regularly beaten by her husband. This story, in fact, forms a minor plot line in part of the book.
The universal themes are about the way families comprise different and sometimes conflicting personalities and yet manage to love and support each other to ensure their joint survival. The particularity, though, has to do with being indigenous, with being lesser, in a rural community. Leane handles this cleverly, using, for example, the Christian symbol of “the black sheep” throughout the book to tease out the ironies and complexities packed into this idea when it is played out in a sheep-farming community. The symbol is explicitly introduced to us in “God’s flock” where Sunny talks about going to church and being taught the story of “the black sheep”:
‘ … But Jesus, if we pray to him [the priest says], will find all the lost sheep and return them to the fold, even the black sheep that no one else wants or loves.’
At least this bit made sense to us. Apart from Jesus, we didn’t know any other sheep farmer who loved black sheep. Most hated them, in fact. That’s why every year my Aunties always ended up with a few black lambs to raise ….
Leane shows how Nan and the Aunties navigate life in a world where “black was not the ideal colour” and in which “women livin’ by themselves are always easy targets”. They navigate it with dignity, often by pretending to go along with white society’s ways while staying true to their own values, which involve respecting and caring for other people and creatures and for their little bit of land.
Purple threads, apparently drawn from Leane’s life, provides an engaging but uncompromising insight into a life most Australians know little about. I hope I’m not being too pompous when I say that we need more books like this, and they need to be read by more people, if we non-indigenous Australians are to have a chance of truly appreciating the experience of being indigenous in our nation.
St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2011
(Review copy supplied by University of Queensland Press via ANZLitLovers blog giveaway. Thanks Lisa. Thanks UQP)
* I have assumed copyright permission for this cover on the basis that the book was provided by UQP