We need more novels like Tony Birch’s The white girl and Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip. This is not to say that we don’t need all the wonderful Indigenous Australian literature I’ve read and reviewed here over the years, but some of the books, as excellent (and as beloved by me) as they are, can be more challenging to read. The white girl and Too much lip, on the other hand, are accessible, page-turning novels that have the capacity to reach a wide audience, but will they? I sure hope so, because the truths they tell are crucial for all Australians to know if we are to ever become a more mature and united nation.
In other words, it’s not only for their page-turning quality, that I paired these two novels. They have some other similarities, which I’ll briefly address before focusing on The white girl. Both novels are set in rural areas, though Birch’s novel also spends some time in the city, and both have female protagonists, though Birch’s Odette is a grandmother while Lucashenko’s Kerry is a 30-something, not-yet-settled woman. Most importantly, though, both reference long-term issues (the aforementioned truths) that have affected indigenous lives for generations, including, of course, the stolen generations, dispossession and powerlessness, past atrocities, and entrenched institutional discrimination.
However, beyond these, the novels are very different. For a start, Birch’s The white girl, being set in the 1960s, fits into the historical fiction genre whilst Lucashenko’s novel is contemporary. Moreover, Lucashenko’s is more complex and has more humour, albeit of the black sort, than Birch’s more straight drama, so let’s now get to it. Unlike Birch’s previous novel, Ghost river, which is set in Melbourne, The white girl, is set in a fictional town, Deane, and an unnamed city. This effectively universalises the story to suit any part of Australia, making it difficult to shrug off the issues as not relevant to our own places.
The basic plot of The white girl concerns Odette’s determination to save her grand-daughter, Sissy, from falling under the control of white authorities, because this novel is set at a time in Australia when indigenous people came under the Act, an act which meant they could not travel away from where they lived without permission. It also meant that the state was legal guardian of children like Sissy. Things come to a head for Odette and Sissy when a new and more officious policeman, Sergeant Lowe, comes to town to replace the alcoholic, and generally more laissez-faire Bill Shea. Odette feels the time is ripe to reunite Sissy with her mother, Lila, who had left soon after Sissy was born, and who, Odette realises some way into the story, had good reason to disappear.
Birch has set his novel at a time of transition. It’s well into the Menzies era, and indigenous people are becoming more actively engaged in fighting for their rights. Sergeant Lowe, though, is not impressed. When Odette approaches him for the necessary permissions to travel, he refuses, telling her (with the about-to-retire Shea also in his hearing):
‘The whole business of native welfare has been neglected in this district for many years. I will not allow it to continue. Your people need certainty, just as we do, as officers of the Crown. None of this is helped, of course, by those trouble-makers arguing for citizenship of behalf of your people.’
The divisive language (“your people”) and the assertion of absolute power (“I will not allow it to continue”) reflect classic colonial behaviours that ramp up the level of threat felt by Odette. This threat is exacerbated by the presence of a brutal white family in the district, the Kanes, comprising a father and two sons. Lowe is somewhat aware of their trouble-making, but only insofar as it affects another white person in the district, the gentle, brain-damaged Henry who owns the local junkyard. To some extent the book’s characters are stereotypical, but Birch’s story-telling is such that they don’t become – at least not unreasonably so – caricatures. This is partly because they are fleshed out with back-stories. It’s not particularly complex story-telling – the back stories, for example, are common ones – but the novel is believable, perhaps because they are common.
As Lucashenko does in Too much lip, Birch also references traditional culture and its ongoing role in people’s lives. Odette, like many indigenous people, listens to messages from birds (“a morning doesn’t pass without one of them speaking to me”) and to the “old people” from whom she believes her strength comes. Birch also beautifully conveys indigenous people’s resourcefulness in the face of a dominant white culture. For example, Odette’s father tells her, when she’s a young girl, why she should sing in the mission church even though they don’t believe in “their God”:
‘Because it’s best to keep them fellas happy, keep their meanness down.’
And Odette’s response, when asked for her “tribal name” by a patronising white woman who offers her piece-work employment as a card artist, provides a typical example of indigenous response to such self-interested nosiness:
It never failed to surprise Odette how white people were always going on about uplifting Aboriginal people, yet they would demand information about the old ways when it suited them. She looked over to the honey jar sitting on the bread board and read the label to herself. It sounded tribal enough. ‘We’re the Bilga people, ‘ she explained. ‘That’s my tribe. The Bilgas.’
What Birch shows, then, is that survival for indigenous people was (and mostly still is) quite a cat-and-mouse game. It involves “taking a chance with these white people”. This is a risk, Odette and her friends realise, but is often all they have. And that, I think, is the main message Birch wants to leave with his non-indigenous readers. The question is, can we rise to the challenge, and be trusted? Are we prepared to heed the truths being shared? So far, I’d say, the jury is still out.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book. Read for ANZLitLovers ILW2019.
The white girl
St Lucia: UQP, 2019
(Review copy courtesy UQP)
25 thoughts on “Tony Birch, The white girl (#BookReview)”
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I’ll have to add both of these to my tbr pile.
Thanks Claire – I can only second that!
I loved the characterisation of Henry. That whole sequence about him restoring the bike for Sissy’s birthday was just gorgeous and it made what happened seem even more of a tragedy because the gift of independence was well-meant by someone who had nothing much to give but time and love.
It was a very lovely story, I agree, Lisa – and it has that common story of outsiders accepting each other. The dominant culture rejects them for different reasons but they accept each other, partly because they know what it’s like to be discounted.
This book reminds me in a way of Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs, which is written entirely in dialogue from the PoV of the underclass in Britain, and the text works to show how they are not heard and not seen. That was a brilliant book, it still haunts me.
I’ll add it to the list!!!
The book sounds fantastic but disturbing. Though I am not unaware of the human rights violations and just plain horrendous treatment of indigenous Australians actually putting the particulars into story form can indeed be powerful. I agree that an important role of fiction is to tell stories like this.
It is Brian – and can be a good way of getting some truths to people who may not necessarily read more serious critiques and commentary, can’t it?
I recognize his name from other reviews you’ve written; his style (and maybe intent too?) sounds similar to Thomas King’s way of tackling these issues in these lands. Great storytelling is such a powerful thing. The one of his available to me via our public library is Blood (2011 – possibly a Canadian rights publication date rather than the actual date on the other side of the world): would you recommend that as a good place to start or should I wait until they gather some more titles?
Unfortunately, Buried, I haven’t read Blood – his debut novel, which was published in 2011 here so your date is accurate for the novel.) It was very well reviewed and was short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award. My sense is it’s a bit more brutal – and maybe a little more complex – than some of his others, but Lisa can probably answer your question better than I, I think. I’m really pleased that your library system has even one.
I must look out for Thomas King!
I will aim to keep it in mind for Lisa’s next July event, if not before. Even the cover does seem to suggest that your take on it is correct! Yes, I’m always pleased to spot one that’s crossed over. Definitely more likely that I’ll make my way to it eventually…
Great Buried. Thanks.
It’s confronting reading about white meanness from a black perspective. A number of the books I’ve read recently do this too.
I’m currently reading Yield by Tara June Winch which has moments that show me this too. A part of me wants to cry out’ ‘but that’s not me’. However I grew up in rural NSW, so I know exactly what they mean, what was experienced. I saw it with my own eyes – at school, down the street, in shops, on the sports field. There were obvious reasons to be fearful of the whites and subtle ones too. Sadly shy, white girls had a number of similar problems – different words – different deeds, but the same end – all about power, entitlement and trying to keep people subdued and in their place.
It is, I agree Brona, but more non-indigenous people need to read these books don’t they?
I want read Yield. I’m really upset that I missed an author event with her last weekend. I paid my money, hoping l’d make it but time defeated me.
I lived in a country town in my pre-teen to very early teen years and know some of what you say too.
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It’s been great to see and listen to so many great Indigenous artists this week. I agree that the works of literature you refer to need to be read and taken to heart by non-indigenous Australians, but I worry sometimes that literature can fall into the too hard basket, compared with music and the visual arts because literature calls for a different kind of attentiveness. I hope Melissa Lucashenko and Tony Birch do reach popular audiences.
Thanks Dorothy. I agree of course.
However, I think that there’s music and visual arts that are hard too? I think we need a wide gamut of offerings, from the hard to the easy (if that’s a good way to describe it) to suit different needs at different times? It’s often the “hard” works that push the boundaries of their forms, and I like seeing that, even if it can make my brain hurt!
I’m not impressed by Birch’s “easy to read” style and think his generalized locations detract from Blood and, from what I have read, from this one too. There are too many very good stories in Indig.Lit about particular locations and people, for Birch’s stories to have any attraction (to me anyway).
Fair enough Bill – we’ll have to agree to disagree on the generalised locations, in particular I think, but I understand your perspectives on this.
Spot on review, Sue. A very readable book with disturbing content as well as hope drawn from Odette’s (and others’) resilience and strength, but with pretty stereotypical figures, I thought and no real character development. But then the novel had other purposes, I think. Melissa Lucashenko’s novel is a much more complex and challenging work for all of us. I also loved Odette’s quick and creative thinking in coming up with her ‘tribe’.
Thanks Ian … totally agree of course with all you say, given you agree with me! Odette’s “tribe” was great. I love how it shows indigenous sense of humour and the way they can take the mickey out of us doesn’t it?
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