I’ve recently been concentrating on reading for purpose, rather than pleasure. I’m reading Australian historical fiction and memoirs to research for a novel I am writing. My aim is to gain an insight into the narrative of Australian culture during the 20th Century, and in particular, relating to WW1, WW2 and the Vietnam War.
It’s an interesting way to approach books: not diving into the latest best-seller, or the book that came before the movie. It has opened my eyes to different ways of seeing who we were, and who we are; of seeing… us. Beyond Duck River, written by Angela Martin, Hodder, (2001) bears no exception.
Ms Martin has written of her kin. The Sydney-born author, academic and arts administrator descends from English and Sydney Aboriginal ancestry, and writes what she knows. She grew up around Duck River and presents a family saga based on three generations of suburban Aboriginal women.
I found her writing style drew me into each scene with subtle, yet deep point of view to enhance the meaning. Keenly observant and frank, dry and sometimes witty, Ms Martin presents the trials of half-caste assimilation through vivid characters to show their ways of avoiding the scrutiny of authorities, the effects of wars, the cruelty of stolen generations and of domestic abuse. The families try to belong, but through class and race division, can never truly blend in, even when forced.
To portray this, I have included a segment about the main character’s grandfather, Jack Smith:
As the horse and cart took off from the orphanage, Jack Wilson stared at the reins as they steered him away from his sister and into a world without hope. He was delivered to his new home where the people were kindly.
“We weren’t blessed with a child of our own,” Mrs Smith tried to explain, “but if you let us, we can look after you and love you just the same.”
“And, your name will be just like ours too, Jack. You’ll be a Smith, like us,” said Mr Smith proudly.
“I don’t want to be a Smith. I want to be a Wilson, like Essie. She’ll never find me if I’m a Smith. I’m a Bullamatta boy!”
“You mean Parramatta, Jack.”
“Bullamatta. Bullamatta! Matta’s place of water. Bulla is eel. Food, see?
You’s changed it, just like you wanna change my name.”
Beyond Duck River is about a family’s place of belonging and the river which flows or trickles throughout the story – both are gradually degraded by the march of time, but their spirits endure. The story may appeal to fans of Bryce Courtenay, Kate Grenville, Thomas Keneally, Colleen McCullough and Sally Morgan to name a few. Not bad company in my view. – JJ Hicks.