Odette Brown and her twelve-year-old granddaughter, Sissy, share the same single bed. Squeezed together almost merging into one. While waiting for the kettle to fill with water from the tap outside, Odette’s gaze wanders over to the western boundary of Deane, the town across the dry riverbed. She looks down the dirt path that is still know as Deane’s Line today. The line had been drawn to separate the aboriginals from the white settlers and was named after the infamous Eli Deane, the town’s founder. That was over a century ago, but had things really improved?
A photograph on the wall of Odette’s daughter Lila, reminds her that it was once Lila who she shared the thin single bed with. The light skin of her granddaughter reminding her that the only thing they know about Sissy’s father is that he was white, his identity still a mystery. Lila had run away leaving Sissy in Odette's care. A sudden pain above her hip pulls her up short, it has been getting worse.
In chapter three the perspective will change to Sissy as she wakes from sleep and this will become a regular occurrence during the novel. Sissy also notices the photograph of her mother. Sissy longs to know more about her mother but Nan Odette gets upset when Sissy asks questions. Sissy makes a cup of tea and sees a figure in black through the window. She can only make out a silhouette but something about it fills her with foreboding.
The figure belongs to the new policeman who is replacing Bob Shea, a drunkard, who has mostly turned a blind eye to the aborigines through his career. Lowe is a strict disciplinarian and follows the law, upholding it to the letter. Perhaps one of the most alarming points is that Lowe truly believes that he is doing the best thing for the children and the mothers under his guardianship. Yet he is a zealot and a bigot, and revels in absolute power. Odette knows that there will be trouble with this Serjeant Lowe.
When she goes to the doctors about the pain, she finds out that it is a tumour, most likely benign, but it will have to be removed. She will have to travel to the city to have the operation and then recovery. She fears that this will give Serjeant Lowe the perfect excuse to sweep in and take Sissy away from her forever, another child lost to the Stolen Generation.
Odette and Sissy flee with the help of Bill Shea, coming up with a plan to visit a sickly relative in the city. But Lowe gets wind of the plan and will stop at nothing in tracking them down and returning them to his district to face the law, charge, and separate them.
Parts of this book are heartbreaking. Children being separated from their parents, taught about a god they had never heard of, and died from diseases, like whooping cough and measles which they had never encountered before. The only thing left to remember that they even existed were the wildflowers planted by their mothers that lay dormant until spring when they would sprout beautiful flowers to mark the unmarked graves.
There is a poignant part in the novel that brought me to tears where Odette finds out about a mother who had her children stolen away from her and was told a week later. She had no idea where they were, she was told she would never see them again, so she hangs herself in the church. I simply cannot fathom what it would be like to have your children taken away from you and told you will never see them again. And all of this was done in the “best interests” of the children and mother.
I am saddened to say that my knowledge of the Stolen Generation is regretfully limited, something I aim to rectify after reading this book. 4 Stars!
Tony Birch is the author of Ghost River, which won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous Writing and Blood, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. He is also the author of Shadowboxing and three short story collections, Father’s Day, The Promise and Common People. In 2017 he was awarded the Patrick White Literary Award. Tony is a frequent contributor to ABC local and national radio and a regular guest at writers’ festivals. He lives in Melbourne and is a Senior Research Fellow at Victoria University.
If you enjoyed this novel there is a link here to a podcast on THE GARRETT with Birch talking about the book -