As that old pop song goes, what kind of fool am I? I went, you see, to Macquarie University, which I chose for its then modern approach to tertiary education. It was great, but somehow, I didn’t end up in tutorials taught by Thea Astley, nor did I study Australian history in which Jill Roe was one of the University’s foundation lecturers. What was I thinking? Hindsight is a marvellous thing, eh?
Most of you will know who Thea Astley is, but non-Australians, in particular, may not know Jill Roe. She is best known for her comprehensive award-winning biography of Miles Franklin (see a review by Lisa, ANZLitLovers), but she wrote many books and was, among other things, a regular contributor to the Australian Dictionary of Biography. The book I’m reviewing here, Our fathers cleared the bush, was published last year, only months before her death early this year.
Old and new regionalism
What a fascinating read it was – for its content, which tells the story of Eyre Peninsula, a part of Australia I don’t know, and for its form and style. This latter is what I’m going to focus on mostly in this post. The book’s subtitle, “remembering Eyre Peninsula”, provides some clue to its form, which I’d describe as an amalgam of memoir/family history, regional history and historiography. Roe seems, overall, to be exploring an approach to writing the history of regions. In her introduction she writes:
The aim is not so much to tell my own story – though I often start there – nor to fill a gap in the literature – though there is one – but rather, on the basis of personal reflections and a now quite extensive range of materials, to capture some key aspects of, and moments in, the regional experience over time.
“Extensive range of materials”. Hold that thought, because I’ll come back to it. For now, though, I’m sticking to the regional history idea. Chapter 7, one of my favourites in fact, is titled “I danced for the Queen”. In it she writes quite a bit about regionalism and regional histories. She suggests that as Australian history established itself in the 1950s and 60s, “some fine regional studies appeared” and she names a few. It was “a golden age of regional history when it seemed the national story was becoming clear”. But, she argues, that was “old regionalism”. Since the 1970s, new issues and factors have arisen. These include the understanding of “regionalism” itself; the rise of interest in local and family history which is adding “new building bricks, even new layers” to the undertaking and appreciation of regional history; the role of the environment; and that major factor, the recognition of Aboriginal history, which she says introduces a discontinuity into held narratives. She suggests that exploring Aboriginal history “seems to work best in regional frameworks”. Perhaps, but there is also need to include Aboriginal history in the overarching national story. I presume she would argue that too?
She teases out the Aboriginal history issue a bit more. She says:
On a grander scale, the history of the Kimberley in Western Australia is being transformed by research into the Aboriginal experience, much of it distressing, none of it yet settled or fully integrated into the national story. This history may be hard for some to take in, but that is because it adds new data and a challenging dimension to taken-for-granted narratives. In time, along with environmental and the other histories, Indigenous history will most likely lead to a new regional history in this country.
She then makes what could almost be a manifesto:
… my firm belief that any history in which people cannot recognise themselves – whether proudly or ruefully, in surprise or dismay – is not good history.
Beautifully said, and hard to argue with – at least these days when we don’t accept that history begins and ends with great deeds by big men (and occasionally women).
“a now quite extensive range of materials”
Now, histories can often be rather dry, but Our fathers cleared the bush has a lovely conversational tone. It almost felt like she was talking to me as I read along. We learn a lot about life on the Peninsula from the 1840s to the 1960s and beyond. We hear about farms and schools, churches and sport, transport and the country show. I laughed at her comment that when she turned her mind back to the Peninsula in 1998, she “paid no attention to sport as a source of social life and values, a mistake I mustn’t make again”. Anyhow, all these are features of country life, and many are shared through the prism of her and her family’s experience, but while we come away knowing the skeleton of her life, this is definitely not a memoir. The focus is the history.
However, as well as telling the history, she also shares her methodology and her sources. She says that “the discovery of a new source is the historian’s delight”. She mentions women’s diaries and school records; and she talks about the value and limits of census data. She uses anecdotal evidence but carefully notes the unreliability of recall. She notes there are limits to what personal memories can offer the large picture. In her family, for example, there were no sons so the daughters “did more than usual of the outdoor work.” It would be not be valid to generalise, then, she’s saying, from her family. For some readers, Roe’s historiographical discussions might get in the way of the history itself, but I enjoyed getting to know the historian’s mind.
Finally, she also points to histories that are still waiting, such as “a comprehensive account of the Aboriginal experience of the Eyre Peninsula”. Others include “the coming of service stations” to Australia or the role of Greek Orthodox churches in fishing communities. Anyone looking for a PhD topic might like to start here!
So, I’m at the end of my post and I’ve told you very little about the Eyre Peninsula. All I can say is that if you are interested in the Peninsula, or in the history of rural Australia, you should find what you’re looking for in this book (particularly given its index and extensive end-notes) but if you are interested in approaches to modern history writing, this would also be a good book to read. Roe says, early on, that her approach to history is “post-modern, in the sense that it can’t come to a definite conclusion”. That is certainly what she has presented here – a story about a region that tells us much but which also leaves many questions to be answered – because life goes on and there’s always more historical research to do.
PS For a lovely tribute to Jill Roe written just after her death, please read blogger (and historian) Yvonne’s post.
(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)