Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
This month I’m getting to two books that I should have read long ago and am (somewhat unsurprisingly) being blown away by these modern classics.
Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu has been running off the shelves
ever since it was published in 2014 and has recently been given new wings with the publication of a version for younger readers. It is an incredible investigation of Aboriginal political, social and agricultural practices pre-contact with Europeans and Pascoe draws on the diaries, letters, illustrations and photographs of early settlers to craft his argument. What he uncovers is a vastly different picture to the hunter-gatherer narrative that we have been taught in schools. Rather, the Indigenous population of this country were farming, fishing and managing the land using a wide array of sophisticated engineering techniques.
While these practices alone place First Nations people further along the evolutionary track than many people give them credit for, they were also building large, robust structures and maintaining a peaceful and democratic governance across this vast land. European settlers deliberately ignored or obscured the facts to lay better claim to a land that they wanted for their own financial gain – and have laid waste to in the successive 250 years. However, Pascoe’s account is far from bitter as he urges all Australians to accept and acknowledge the wisdom of his ancestors so that we can start to repair some of the damage done by colonisation. Full of fascinating stats, facts and anecdotes, Dark Emu is a remarkable work of scholarship and one that all Australians should read.
The other book that I’m shamefully late to the party on is Margaret Atwood’s classic, The Handmaid’s Tale. Prompted by the upcoming release of the sequel this month, I’ve finally taken the plunge. As with all books that stand the test of time, Atwood’s misogynist dystopia feels strikingly relevant as women are segregated from men (for their own good, of course) and stratified into the roles of Wives, Handmaids or Marthas – all of which are preferable to the unmentionable fate of the ‘Unwomen’. Bodily autonomy, reproductive rights, language, power and class are all skewered by Atwood in her typically nuanced fashion. Just like Orwell’s 1984, the tone is oppressive and ominous, even though we experience the day-to-day reality of the characters rather than a broader picture of society. Atwood’s dark humour, superb characterisation and masterfully painted scenes keep the book bearable, even as our heroine walks deeper into a forest full of danger. I can’t wait to get back to it and then dive straight into the sequel when it arrives!
Liarbird by Laura + Philip Bunting
The white lie is a tricky skill to master, lucky for Lyrebirds they learn to lie from the day they hatch. They are the best in the bush at fibbing, faking, fabricating and fake-news creating. Laura and Philip Bunting’s newest offering, Liarbird, is their most hilarious book yet. Philips’ soft, bold illustrations and sophisticated palette combined with Laura’s witty play on words will have adults and children laughing together from page one. Familiar characters Koala and Kookaburra, join Liarbird to tell the classic tale of The Boy who Cried Wolf with a Jon Klassenesque dry humor from books like, This is not my Hat. Just when you are almost convinced that lying is a necessity in life, disaster strikes and Liarbird is left cleaning up his mess vowing to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. What could possibly go wrong? A laugh out loud book with a subtle message for the media-information age generation.
The Yield by Tara June Winch
I was blown away by Tara June Winch’s debut novel Swallow the Air (2006), so when The Yield was released this month I was eager to get have it in my hands. This story is told through three narratives and periods of time. August Gondiwindi is returning to Country after living overseas for over a decade when her Pop dies of cancer. There’s Pop, reflecting on his memories of growing up in a mission and learning about his culture later in life, by writing a Wiradjuri-English dictionary. These connected stories are interspersed with the letters of a nineteenth-century missionary, Reverend Greenleaf. From these three narratives we learn about the place the Gondiwindi family live; Prosperous House in the fictional town of Massacre Plains. We learn about the history and the treatment of Aboriginal people and the development of the mission. We learn about Pop’s experience of growing up in the mission and cut off from his culture. He recalls learning the old ways later in life, of being taught language, ancient farming practices, stories and dance. These parts of the story are beautiful and poetic and I was often brought to tears with the images of connection to land and spirits. When August arrives home, she quickly learns that her Nan is being evicted and a mining company are taking over the land. Similarly to Too Much Lip, childhood heartbreak and cultural loss are developed alongside environmental devastation and native land title.
In her review of The Yield, Yugambeh author Ellen van Neerven says Winch’s use of Wiradjuri “decolonises the throat and tongue”. She asks: What does contemporary use of language look like? What can it offer us in our lives? What can it do for the overall health of our country? These questions and many more are raised in The Yield, a poetic and powerful novel that I have learnt greatly from and I urge everyone to read!