The White Girl by Tony Birch was my August book club choice.
I’m always a little nervous when it’s my turn to pick the book in case it turns out to be a book universally disliked, poorly written or just one of those duds that doesn’t spark any kind of joy in anyone.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the case with The White Girl.
I was initially concerned for young Sissy, the granddaughter of Odette Brown (our strong, resilient protagonist), early on in the story, that something ghastly would happen to her at the hands of the bullying young men who lived on the nearby farm. I actually had to put the book down for a few days, the fear and anxiety around what could happen to her was too much to think about or read about.
I am grateful that Birch, ultimately, chose not to go down that road.
So many awful things did happen, but they happened earlier in the story or off stage so to speak. In some ways this could be seen as an easy way out for the reader. So many young Aboriginal women had to experience and live through what happened to Sissy’s mother, and almost happened to her, that making the reader face this fact would have been a valid and historically correct thing to do.
‘Trouble? Our people have been in one sort of trouble or another from the first day we set eyes on a white person’.
But this is a story about strong women and survival and the choices we make. Odette is determined to protect young Sissy in a way she could not protect her own daughter. It’s not until she discovers the whole truth about Lila and learns of how the Kane boys are beginning to harass Sissy that Odette makes a huge decision.
Odette is not a victim, instead she does what needs to be done.
As an early childhood educator with 18 years experience, I taught a number of Indigenous kids with incredibly strong, devoted grandmothers, determined to protect their grandchildren in ways they were unable to protect their own children. The tragedy is that Birch’s story, set in a fictional town in 1960’s Australia, still felt so relevant for my teaching experiences throughout 1990’s, early 2000’s Australia.
Initially you could think that Birch’s story was fairly simple and straightforward storytelling. However, the simplicity masks deeper layers, subtly explored and exposed. Characters that could be seen as one-dimensional or even a stereotype feel fleshed out by the end of the book.
Birch even gives the awful Kane family some redeeming qualities with the younger son/brother who tries to protect, explain and understand everyone. We become aware of the ghastly childhoods they experienced at the hands of their father, that goes some way towards explaining their awful behaviour. The law and the church could not protect this family of white boys from the horrors of their childhood, yet it believed they could somehow protect and provide for Indigenous kids.
Birch covers so many difficult, confronting topics, yet it never feels heavy or preachy. The story telling is fierce yet tender and full of hope. His restraint acts as a powerful tool that makes the reader face all the things left unsaid. The story is a beacon of resilience and strength for Indigenous readers and a challenge for non-Indigenous readers to step out in someone else’s shoes.
I was trying to find a way to finish this post, when I read Sue @Whispering Gums thoughtful review from last year, She summed up my thoughts so succinctly that I have borrowed (with permission) her final paragraph:
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.
- Birch is a novelist, a short story-writer, poet, academic historian, climate justice-Indigenous rights activist
- He grew up in inner-city Melbourne with an Aboriginal, Barbadian (convict), Irish and Afghani heritage.
- Birch’s great grandfather on his mother’s side was an Afghani, Bouta Khan, from the Punjab.
- His great grandfather was James “Prince” Moodie, transported from Barbados to Tasmania.
- Birch spent a decade as a firefighter.
- When he was 30, he went to the University of Melbourne, as a mature-age student.
- In 2003 he was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal for the best PhD in Arts.
- He is now the Bruce McGuinness research fellow at Victoria University.
- His work includes climate change research and how it impacts Indigenous communities and people on the margins of society.
After visiting with her parents Odette walked Sissy past the other graves, explaining the connection she had to family and Odette’s childhood friends.
‘You need to know all of these people,’ she said, ‘and you must remember them.’
Sissy looked around at the headstones. ‘There’s a lot of people here, Nan. How will I remember all of them?’
‘Through the stories,’ Odette said. ‘I’m telling them to you, and it will be your job to remember. It’s just like the story in the book you’re reading. The story of the dog from Africa. You told me about that today, and already I can remember it. Our stories are not written in any books, which means you’ll need to keep telling them to your own family one day.’
Book 10 of 20 Books of Summer Winter