I’m still in two minds about this book. One the one hand it’s beautifully written, has good pacing, solid characters, good structure and brings important issues out into the open. The basic storyline – about a teenage girl who moves (against her wishes) to the small country town where her mother grew up – sets up the current racial conflicts, and those unresolved from the past, really well.
It is important to note the author liaised with Aboriginal Elders from the country she was writing about, and that there is a foreword from an Elder from that country which is supportive of the novel. I think (though I don’t know for sure) that the author was probably trying to achieve a few things, including looking at how racism against Aboriginal peoples occurs today compared to the past, looking at the current impact of past racist policies and beliefs, and also taking some ownership, as a white person, for recognising and wanting to make reparations for past wrongs.
In doing this the author had to make some tough choices. How could she tell this story without culturally appropriating the Aboriginal Dreaming story of the crow? How could she raise the issues for young adults in a way that didn’t apportion blame/guilt but instead shone a light on the issues so they could be discussed with openness. She tackled the first question by choosing a white narrator, and by working with the local Aboriginal peoples to get their advice. Secondly, she pulls no punches with some very accurate dialogue that clearly shows some of the current racist attitudes that fall under the “I’m not racist but…” banner. But she also glosses over some issues in a way that overall do detract from the book as a whole.
I think the review by Book Smugglers is right when it points out that the real problem with this book is its focus. Book Smuggler writes: “Because you see, it is all about the whites. This is a story in which a white heroine is chosen by the totem of an Aboriginal Clan to right wrongs of the past. Because for some reason she is the only one that can do it even though she is friends with an Aboriginal boy who is actually a descendant of the murdered man and someone who shares the same religious beliefs as Jimmy did.” The full review from Book Smugglers is worth reading, and although I don’t 100% agree with it I think it raises a lot of valid points.
So, should a book like this be written at all? How should non-Indigenous authors write about Australia’s true history since white settlement/invasion? I think Constable has taken important steps to write this book the best possible way she could, with the best intentions. But I can’t help thinking that maybe a better solution for this story might have been to work with an Aboriginal co-author. Many of the stories of Australia’s recent history in relation to our nation’s First Peoples are not pretty. They do need to be told. But I think we need to think carefully, and as non-Indigenous people step outside our own world view, to think about why and how we tell them.