Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray/River of dreams is Anita Heiss’ second work of historical fiction, her first being Barbed wire and cherry blossoms about the 1944 Cowra breakout in which she imagines a relationship between a Japanese escapee and a young First Nations Australian woman. I have not read that novel, but I have read, over the last year or so, other First Nations Australia historical novels, including Julie Janson’s Benevolence (my review) and the collaborative novel by non-Indigenous Australian Craig Cormick and First Nations writer Harold Ludwick, On a barbarous coast (my review). Long before these, though, was Kim Scott’s unforgettable The deadman dance (my review).
The value of these, and like books, to offering a First Nations perspective on the one-sided history that most of us grew up with can not be under-estimated. Heiss, in fact, wrote in her Author’s Note and Acknowledgements, that through re-engaging with her Wiradyuri homelands in her early 50s,
I realised very quickly I had to honour those Ancestors who for millennia have lived, loved, and nurtured the land and each other. And I wanted to pay tribute to those who carry on culture, knowledge and language still today. I felt I had a responsibility as an author to write our Wiradyuri heroes – our men and women – into the Australian narrative where they had been ignored or forgotten too long.
Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is her response to that realisation. It is of particular interest to me because it is set around Gundagai and Wagga Wagga, which are within three hours’ drive from where I live. Although I have been visiting the Gundagai region since the mid-1970s, it was only in recent years that I became aware of the story which is central to Heiss’ novel. This story concerns Gundagai‘s flood of 1852. As Wikipedia describes, the Murrumbidya flooded, killing at least 78 of the town’s population of 250 people. Using bark canoes, four local Aboriginal men, including Yarri, Jacky Jacky, and Long Jimmy, saved somewhere between 40 and 68 people. They were minimally recognised at the time, but, finally, in 2017 (2017!), a bronze sculpture of Yarri and Jacky Jacky, with canoe, was unveiled in Gundagai. Heiss’ novel concerns the life of a young Wiradjuri woman, Wagadhaany, the imagined daughter of Yarri.
The novel is told, like many historical novels, chronologically, but it starts with a Prologue set in 1838, some 14 years before the main narrative starts. This prologue is important. It introduces Wagadhaany who, as a 4-year-old, is with her babiin, Yarri, as he tells a “White man” that the place they are standing on is “not a good place to live, Boss, too flat”, that it’s a “flood area”. Of course, the White man ignores this local knowledge and so the stage is set for 1852 when the devastating flood comes. By this time, Wagadhaany, now 18, is working as a servant for that very White man, Henry Bradley.
The flood and its immediate aftermath occupy the first five chapters of this 29-chapter novel. Only two sons of the Bradley family of six survive, along with Wagadhaany. The rest of the novel follows their lives over the next couple of decades, showing how little the White settlers learnt from the experience – practically, in terms of how to live on the land, and morally, in terms of their behaviour to the true owners of the country. Wagadhaany, who is bound, she is told, by the Master and Servants Act of 1840, has no agency in such a world.
“a witness without a voice”
Into this situation comes the young Quaker widow, Louisa, who, like the Bradley men, lost her family in the floods. I was surprised by the appearance of a Quaker, but Heiss also explains in her Note that there were Quakers in early colonial Australia, and they were interested in “the treatment of the convicts and the Aborigines”.
Louisa is an interesting character because she tries to treat Wagadhaany well. She calls her by her actual name, rather than Wilma, as James Bradley does; she works alongside her in the kitchen and garden; she gives her a bedroom in the house; and she converses with Wagadhaany as a friend. But, she has her blind-spots. She is oblivious to Wagadhaany’s lack of agency over her life, to the fact that, when the Bradleys (now including Louisa), move to Wagga Wagga, she thoughtlessly over-rides Wagadhaany’s wish to stay in the Gundagai area where her family is.
As the novel progresses, Wagadhaany’s homesickness for her family, and her country, increases. We are privy to Wagadhanny’s thoughts, to her awareness that there are limits – albeit unconscious ones – to Louisa’s concept of equality. Louisa is, after all, a product of her time and her culture – and Wagadhaany notices that, for all their “equality”, it is Wagadhaany who does the hardest, dirtiest, heaviest jobs, and that she is not paid a wage.
What the presence of Louisa does, though, is to add richness and nuance to the depiction of colonial society. She is a foil to the brutal, racist attitudes of James Bradley. She does not mitigate them but shows that his were not the only views around. Wagadhaany, on the other hand, tells it as it is from the First Nations’ perspective. In the early days after the flood, Heiss writes that Wagadhaany
feels like a witness without a voice. She was there, she lived through the horror of the flood, the fear, the physical exhaustion, the loss of those she knew. But no-one asks how she is, what she thinks or knows, or how she feels.
For all Louisa’s kindness, there is much Wagadhaany feels she can’t say, and so throughout the story she continues as a silent witness. Here she is reflecting on Louisa and work:
She wondered why Louisa had to be protected from hard work but the Wiradyuri women didn’t. And she wondered if that thought ever crossed Louisa’s mind, because that made them different, unequal …
Gradually, though, she starts to stand up for herself:
“I know I will have to work for you, I know about the masters and servants law, but you cannot keep me living here in the homestead against my will if you honestly believe I am your equal and that I should be as free as you”.
And Louisa, to her credit, “lets” her live with the river family.
Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray has strong characters, but it is also a genre novel with a strong plot, including of course, romance. I don’t want to spoil what is a good page-turning story, so I will leave the story here.
Heiss has several novels under her belt now. She knows how to tell a good story, and she is also very clear about her message. She uses her fiction to show what she wants the rest of us to know. In this novel, it’s the way First Nations people lived, the way they tried to work with the settlers, and the way they were gradually pushed off their land. She also, through Louisa, forces us to confront what really is being “a good White person”. So, not only does the novel tell some truths about Australia’s settler history but it is also immediately relevant to today.
In this novel, Heiss also, as First Nations writers are increasingly doing, incorporates language into the writing. There is a glossary at the back, but you rarely need it because most words are self-explanatory in context. Seeing “our” nation’s words in Australian literature is a truly exciting development.
Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray isn’t a perfect novel – and I struggled particularly with Louisa’s falling in love with the man she does. But this is a genre novel, and a bit of belief-stretching is allowed. The end result is a book that engages the reader with its strong protagonist in Wagadhaany, that wraps its vital messages in a compelling story, and, significantly, that ends authentically.
Lisa (ANZ LitLovers) has also recommends this book.
Anita Heiss is a Wiradyuri woman from NSW.
London: Simon & Schuster, 2021