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The White Girl

December 4, 2019

The White Girl Tony Birch, The White Girl, 2019

As a child, Odette Brown was removed from her parents. In the mission, Odette was not allowed to speak to her father Reuben, except after mass. “While Odette had no faith in the Christian God … she was prepared to raise her voice and praise him if it meant she could be reunited with family, however briefly.”

Reuben had taught Odette to sing just loud enough to keep the missionaries satisfied, “because It’s best to keep them fellas happy, keep their meanness down.“

Now Odette and her 13-year-old granddaughter Cecily (Sissy) live on the outskirts of a small town which could be in rural Queensland. It is the early 1960s, when First Peoples were subject to total control. Odette is an artist but, without citizenship, she cannot open her own bank account, and so keeps her earnings in jam tins. Sissy is fair-skinned, and the new Sergeant in charge of the police station is planning to remove her from Odette.

The heart of this novel is the deep love between Odette and Sissy. The vivid portrayal of these two central characters and their close bond kept me immersed in their story, fearful about the Sergeant’s plan. Odette is a strong and resourceful woman, and she won’t let go of Sissy without a fight.

In a generally favourable review in the Australian, Geordie Williamson criticises Birch’s use of “easy binaries” – the characters are either decent people or monsters. On her ANZLitLovers Blog, Lisa Hill says that Williamson misses the point. She writes: “The White Girl is a story about people who’ve grown up in a binary world, among the powerless, the poor, the uneducated and the dispossessed.  They have learned from their history and their own experiences not to trust people in positions of power.”

I agree. It might be aesthetically satisfying if characters are conflicted and complex, but sometimes evil is done by people who may not be conflicted, like the ruthless Sergeant or the cruel Aaron Kane, who poses a serious threat to Sissy. And the racist attitudes that enabled these “monsters” are still with us. It is legitimate for art and literature to portray such evil.

Lisa Hill points out that the “circumstances of this novel are not ancient history … [but] a history that was taking place at the same time that I, a child born 10,000 miles away, was granted an Australian citizenship denied to the First Nations people of this land.”

I was also growing up at that time, when children were being removed to a reserve a few kilometres from my town. But that history is still happening. Indigenous children are now being removed from their parents at ten times the rate of non-Indigenous children, often when their grandmothers, women like Odette, would have been available to care for them, as shown in the documentary After the Apology. And ten-year-olds are still being sent to prison.

Many Australians are still living in the history portrayed in The White Girl.

Note: Sue at Whispering Gums also has an excellent review of The White Girl, contrasting it with Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip, an utterly different novel treating similar themes.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 4, 2019 8:57 pm

    Thanks Bryce for the link. I enjoyed your review, and your discussion of Lisa’s response to Williamson. I have to say, though, that I have some sympathy with Williamson’s view, partly because I’m so impressed by Lucashenko’s book in which the characters are so much more complex, are flawed but you understand why. That book is going to be a beacon for me for a long time I think in the skill with which she handles character.

    That said, I did enjoy The white girl, and loved Odette, and poor Henry, in particular.

  2. Bryce permalink*
    December 5, 2019 9:27 am

    Yes, I loved Henry too, and he played an important role. And I agree, Too Much Lip is a great Australian novel, but I did find it overwhelming. At one point I stopped reading, overcome by the unrelenting family dysfunction. I did return and finish it, and glad I did. Lucashenko is a superb writer, and as you say, we understand why the characters are flawed and dysfunction happens. But I found Birch’s novel much easier to read.

  3. Bryce permalink*
    December 10, 2019 4:44 pm

    Claire G Coleman’s review in Sydney Review of Books attests to the reality of the characters: “Sergeant Lowe, the new copper in Deane, the psychotically overenthusiastic ‘Local Protector of Aborigines’ is a bogey man from Aboriginal Australia’s past. … He is familiar to most Indigenous people, the over-authoritative powerful white man, the sort of character that my friends and I call a ‘mission manager’.”

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