Tony Birch is an indigenous Australian author. I picked up his new novel, The White Girl, after reading this wonderful piece in The Guardian.
The White Girl is set in a fictional town of Deane. I googled, then, when I realised the town was an invention, I listened for clues in the story for anything that gave away the state or territory. By the end I felt it could have been almost anywhere in Australia’s interior.
In Deane lives Odette Brown, an Aboriginal woman who has care of her young granddaughter, Sissy. Her own daughter, Lila, left when Sissy was a year old. From birth Sissy’s light skin makes it clear that her father was a white man, but Lila has never disclosed his name.
In 1960s Australia welfare authorities are removing Aboriginal children, especially fair skinned children, from their families. Odette has lost a father, a husband & a daughter. She is not about to lose Sissy. When trouble comes to Deane in the form of a new policeman, Odette realises she has to get herself & Sissy out of town fast.
The White Girl gives insight into The Stolen Generations. These are the Aboriginal children who were removed from their parents & their communities, to be brought up in church missions as wards of the state. The novel gives a sense of the devastating effects this policy had on all Aboriginal people.
Birch wastes not one minute of the 7 hour, 38 minute audiobook. The story is tight. As well as the experiences of children brought up at missions, he also shows the interference of the state in other areas of Aboriginal life. Odette, her Aboriginal friends, neighbours & acquaintances suffer terribly under federal & state legislation designed to “protect” them, with many losing all contact with family & community.
The story follows a good versus evil formula, but is politically complex. Alongside Odette & Sissy, Birch has created some wonderful, troubled characters. Henry Lamb, a white man & junk collector, suffered a head injury as a child, followed by bullying from other white children, & found natural allies in the Aboriginal children. Bill Shea is the drunk, ineffective, long standing town policeman, reprimanded as a child for playing with Aboriginal children & is an ultimately tragic figure.
Birch’s book is fiction but the author notes at the end that the experiences he has created for his characters are ones faced by many Aboriginal people during the 1960s in Australia.
Wavesound Audio did the right thing by casting Shareen Clanton, an indigenous Australian actress, for the audiobook. Clanton does a great “broad Australian” accent, while giving city dwellers & immigrants their own, milder accents. It’s a tight story, an enjoyable production & the audiobook is an excellent way to read Birch’s novel. I found it difficult to put down – I needed to know what happens to Odette & Sissy.
The White Girl • by Tony Birch • read by Shareena Clanton • 7 hours 38 minutes • published by Wavesound Audio • June 04, 2019