August 2019

Noted

‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch

By Helen Elliott
An emotionally eloquent novel about the necessary inheritance of strength in Indigenous women

One hundred and twenty-seven people. That was the census count of “the good white settlers” in the town where Odette Brown lives. Odette was not counted. None of her people were counted. They exist as shadows in a white world.

Odette lives in a small, tidy house on the town’s fringes. When she wants to go to the graveyard on the opposite side, she skirts the edges. Like the birds who, since settlement, never fly over it, Odette never wants to go through. There are times, of course, when she must go directly in – to shop, to see a friend, to get a pass that allows her to travel outside the town. She gets that from the local cops. They run the show.

South Africa? No. Australia, early 1960s. Tony Birch contracts the world to one woman’s life and inheritance, and the result is an emotionally eloquent novel in a direct line from two minor classics published in 1961: Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright and Nene Gare’s The Fringe Dwellers. Both dismantled comfortable Australian myths about mateship, inclusiveness and women. In The White Girl, Birch is as unflinching as Cook in portraying nastiness, ignorance, cruelty and the wrong side of power, and as eagle-eyed as Gare in noting the destructive boredom of life in those places that the powerful are often too tired to regard. And Birch has the vantage of 60 further years of colonial history from which to observe.

Birch is a Melbourne-based academic, author and activist, and always has urgent things to say about history, especially Indigenous history, and climate change. In The White Girl, his attention turns to the necessary inheritance of strength in Indigenous women.

Odette, 63, lives with her 12-year-old granddaughter, Sissy. From her front door she looks across a dry riverbed to the Aboriginal reserve and the main town. The red track between them separates the Aboriginal people from “the good white settlers”. Odette’s fury, and powerlessness, is in that phrase, particularly in the word settlers. That one word contains the entire history of casual and complicit genocide.

Sissy is the child of a rape. Odette’s daughter, Lila, never told her mother who the man was, or even what had happened. The trauma of rape and the birth of a child when she was still herself a child shaped her destiny. Now, as Sissy is about to turn 13, Odette knows her clever granddaughter has no future here and she has a brilliant if dangerous idea. What if the light-skinned black girl moves to the anonymous city and becomes a dark-skinned white girl?

The White Girl lays out the realities of Australia’s recent past and its overlooked shame. And there is no getting around them. Birch’s intention, like Nene Gare’s and Kenneth Cook’s, is to insist that we look at history as it played out in individual lives.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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