Tuesday 12 November 2019

The White Girl


Tony Birch is a writer I've been meaning to read for ages. I remember his debut novel Blood coming out in 2011 and wanting to read that then. I've bought a couple of his books in the years since, for which I'm sure he is grateful, but I hadn't got to reading any. Back in July I used ANZLitlovers Indigenous Literature Week to spur me on to listen to Tony Birch's newest novel The White Girl. And of course I'm very glad that I did.

The White Girl is a quiet, small story about Odette Brown and her granddaughter Sissy living a rather marginal existence on the outskirts of Deane, a small town in Menzies-era rural Australia. 

Odette Brown rose with the sun, as she did each morning. She eased out of the single bed she shared with her twelve-year-old granddaughter, Cecily Anne, who went by the name of Sissy. Wrapping herself in a heavy dressing gown to guard against the cold, Odette closed the bedroom door behind her and went into the kitchen. 
The location is never really specified, which I often find annoying, but I do see that it's used to make a more universal story. The mention of mountains and beaches made me think most of New South Wales, but Tony Birch is a Victorian. In the Author's Note at the end of the book, Tony Birch says The White Girl is a "fictional work set in a fictional town somewhere in Australia".

Odette has raised Sissy, the white girl of the title, ever since Sissy's mother left town about 10 years earlier. The arrival of a new police officer, Sergeant Lowe, changes things for Odette and Sissy. 

In his new role he was simultaneously appointed as a Guardian to the Aboriginal population of the district. He found the title both enticing and apt. 
I really like Tony Birch's storytelling, it is often deceptively simple, yet political, truthful and yet humorous.
Odette had been raised to excuse the ignorance of white people, but it was a difficult task. 
Odette is a calm, wise, and generous woman. Particularly generous. 
'Because they're the ones we deal with every day of our lives. Police. Not the Welfare or the ones who write the rules for the government. Think if you were police, Jack, knowing that one day you'd be told to go into a house and take kiddies away from their family. If you were to treat people with any decency, you couldn't do that job. This fella is giving us a hard time, he needs to be angry at us. Maybe even hate us. The only way they get by.'
I'd like to meet her. I'd like to be her friend. 

The 1950s and 60s was of course still the time of the Stolen Generations. The White Girl humanises these events, 

'Because any older Aboriginal woman I set my eyes on, I really believe she could be my mother. Never is, of course.'
The White Girl is a rather domestic novel, that I thought surprising for a male author, it packs political heft as it explores major life issues for Aboriginal people of the time. The casual and institutional racism. Lives lived in poverty and governed by paternalistic governments, laws and local police. I wasn't aware that under the Aborigines Protection Act Aboriginal people used to need travel permits to leave the district where they lived, and that these travel permits would be granted, or not, by the local police. Aboriginal people needed police permission to travel to visit family, or just go to another town for shopping or an appointment. That a small number applied for Exemption Certificates from the Act by which they could travel freely, and enjoy some of the freedoms of white people. It's extraordinary. It's extraordinary that I didn't know this. The ongoing ignorance of white people I guess ... 
The local police had total control over the lives of Aboriginal people, and very few of them walked through the station door of their own accord. 
The White Girl possibly has the best cover image ever. It's striking to look at, and absolutely perfect for the story.

I listened to the audiobook of The White Girl narrated by Shareena Clanton. She is an Australian actor, and did a great job of the audio narration. I particularly liked her voicing of  Odette. It's lovely, and warm, and brings her to life perfectly. 

ABC RN Conversations Tony Birch (2013)


NancyElin said...

Lovely review, Louise....
I've never read T. Birch but realize I should.
Audio books read with Australian accent are just
great to listen to. I adored Scrublands as audio book!

Louise said...

Thanks Nancy! I'm loving audiobooks this year, and do enjoy Australian and English voiced ones the most. Indeed, most of my reading this year has been by audio. I loved Scrublands audio too.

You read so much Australian Lit and yet there's still so much to go- the struggle is real for all of us.

Brona said...

I've been eyeing this book off for a while now Louise - your review has now tipped me over the edge.
I, for one, am delighted that male writers are embracing the domestic story.