I discovered this morning that my copy of Stradbroke Dreamtime is signed by the author. It says 'Best wishes Kath Walker August 1972', unsurprising, I guess, since that was her name back in 1972 when the book was published and she took up her pen.
Later, she changed her name to Oodgeroo of the Noonuccal tribe,after the paperbark tree that the tribespeople used as roofing material for their gunyahs. We read about a summerhouse built of that tea tree bark in Stradbroke Dreaming in the middle of a wonderful/scary/fascinating story about Carpie the Carpet snake. Have a read of an excerpt:
He was a beauty, that ten-foot carpet snake we had as a pet... (My mother) hated old Carpie because of his thieving ways... But, somehow, Mother never was game to bring down the axe on Carpie's head. We all knew she was tempted to do just that...Jemimah is reading Stradbroke Dreamtime this year in our Australianised AO5. I asked her what she thought of it today. She said, "Refreshing and Confronting". She thinks it is refreshing because it is a much easier read than the other books she has read recently, and it contains a bit of ironic humour. It is confronting, though, because Oodgeroo tells her story as she sees it, and sometimes she does not like white people very much at all.
We all loved Carpie except for Mother - and the dog. The dog kept well out of Carpie's way, because he was scared stiff of him. He seemed to know that a ten-foot carpet snake can wind itself around a dog and in time swallow it whole.
One day mother went away for a short while to hospital. She came home with a brand-new baby sister for us. The day of her homecoming, we were rather overawed as we watched the baby sleeping in her cot... After a while Mother shooed us out to play, placed the cover gently over the sleeping baby, and went to make herself a cup of tea. Some friends, tribal neighbours, called to welcome her home; playing in our summer-house of tea-tree bark that Dad had built to catch the cool breezes blowing from the bay, we heard the women gossiping and the chink of teacups. When the neighbours left, Mother peeped in with pride on her new baby.
Suddenly we heard Mother's voice raised in a terrible screech as she raced outside calling to Dad. Dad read the urgency of that screech, dropped his hammer, and ran.
Mother looked as though she were having a fit. She was jumping up and down, running to snatch up the long handled broom, swearing like a bullocky. We knew something terrible must have happened for Mother to carry on like this. She behaved differently in different sorts of emergencies. we knew this one was serious.
"Stop shouting, woman!" Dad ordered. "What's wrong?"
Mother pointed a shaking finger towards the bedroom, "Get that gluttonous reptile out of my bedroom!"
Dad went into the bedroom. There curled up in the cot with the baby, now wide awake and crying, was old Carpie.
Carpie seemed to sum up the situation in no time flat. He quickly slithered off the bedclothes, down onto the floor and out of the door...
Finally Mother found her composure, once Carpie had disappeared. "But mark my words, you stubborn fellow, that snake could have swallowed my baby," she told Dad.
"Don't be silly, woman, why would he want to swallow your baby when he can swallow your chooks any time he wants to?" Dad retorted, and shot out of the door before Mother could think up a reply.
I remember that back in 1992 I went to visit the War Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. There on the wall amongst stark photographs of the atrocities perpetrated on innocent victims - mainly women, the elderly, and children - were words that read something like this: 'We, the Vietnamese People accuse YOU!!' The information in that museum was biased, there is no doubt, but similarly, the photographs were real, and in them were Americans, New Zealanders and, yes, Australians, performing acts that made me feel very ashamed. That, I think, was the first time I realised completely that white Western middle class people were not always right.
Stradbroke Dreamtime makes you feel like that. In its pages you read things that make you feel ashamed. It almost feels racist - the black people accusing the white people unfairly - except that Oodgeroo was remarkably reasonable and fair in her appraisal.
Reasonable and fair, but not nice.
The first half of the book is the story of Oodgeroo's childhood. The second half is a series of traditional Dreamtime myths. In her story we read about the rations given to black families on Stradbroke Island. Miniscule wages and 'rations' not sufficient to feed a family. Rice, sago, tapioca. White man's food. We read Oodgeroo's opinion on man's greed, and read into it 'white man's greed'. She pulls no punches:
Greedy, thoughtless, stupid, ignorant man continues the assault on nature. But he too will suffer. His ruthless bulldozers are digging his own grave.You feel confronted when you read Stradbroke Dreamtime, but sadly you are also forced to acknowledge that what she says is so. In fact, life for Kath Walker and her family was far, far worse that she writes. She grew up in the age of 'the stolen generation'. As mixed race children one wonders how they were able to remain with their parents at all. Young Kath endured racism right through her life. We don't read about those experiences in this book, but we can feel the undercurrent below the surface, and it makes us feel uncomfortable.
The thread of protest running through Stradbroke Dreamtime is what makes it better for older children. Oodgeroo tells of the joy of her childhood, but you can feel her pain and her anger. It is raw. The stark black and white drawings in the older editions match perfectly, although the illistrations by aboriginal artist Bronwyn Bancroft in the 1993 edition are also pretty good. The book is easy to read, and would appeal to an audience of 6-8 year olds, but reading it then would mean you would miss the opportunity for some fantastic discussions with your kids about what it meant to grow up aboriginal in the Australia of the early part of last century. Like Jemimah says, it's both a refreshing and confronting read.
We still have a long way to go before Australians - black and white - are truly one people. Reading Stradbroke Dreamtime with our kids goes part of the way to helping bridge the gap.
We read Stradbroke Dreamtime in AO5. The good news is that it is still in print. Hurrah!