The White Girl by Tony Birch

‘Odette Brown rose with the sun, as she did each morning.’

Odette Brown’s daughter Lila disappeared years ago, and she lives with her granddaughter Sissy (Cecily) on the Aboriginal fringe of Deane, a small (fictional) country town. This is Australia in the 1960s, before the 1967 referendum, when Indigenous locals are controlled and ‘protected’ by the Act and when fair-skinned Indigenous children are frequently removed from their families.  Odette has managed to avoid this, but the arrival of a new policeman in town changes everything.

‘It is my duty to uplift children such as Cecily and I will not fail her.’

Odette and Sissy are treated well by some white people such as Henry Lamb (the local second-hand dealer) and ignored by Bill Shea (the alcoholic policeman who is about to be replaced) but Odette must be constantly vigilant.

Until the new policeman arrives, Odette and Sissy get by.  Odette, once a domestic, is now a self-employed artist.  She sells her greeting cards to a retailer in the nearest town, but:

‘Without citizenship, Odette could not open an independent bank account.’

Without permission, Odette is not allowed to leave town. And she’s unlikely to get permission from the new policeman.  Unfortunately, Odette is not Sissy’s guardian, neither is her missing mother.  In pre-1967 referendum Australia, Sissy is automatically a ward of the state.

Can Odette protect Sissy? Sissy has a pale skin, courtesy of a white father and is at risk of being taken.  Odette teaches Sissy to respect the ways of the old people and of the country. She reminds Cissy about connections:

‘You need to know all of these people,’ she said, ‘and you must remember them.’

What will Odette and Cissy need to do in order to stay together?  What follows is courageous; a tribute to the Indigenous women who’ve been able to hold families together despite the odds and in the face of official obstruction.

In fewer than 300 pages, Mr Birch managed to grab and hold my attention. His fictional characters and their struggles are an uncomfortable reminder of a past that is far from over for many.  It’s a moving and powerful story, one which I’d like to believe is consigned to history but know is not. Yet.

Uncomfortable reading.  Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Corrupted by Simon Michael

‘Nobody’s innocent.’

London, 1964: gang warfare and widespread police corruption are part of the landscape.  If you pay the right people enough money, you can get away with just about anything.   Charles Holborne’s reputation as a respected and successful barrister continues to rise.  He and his former clerk Sally have moved into a house together: the future is looking good.  But Charles is restless.  He knows that he is still on the radar of the Kray twins, and despite well-intentioned advice from others, he wants one last boxing fight before he is too old.  Charles is training hard and that, together with his work, leaves him less time to spend with Sally.

And then he is approached in an unorthodox fashion, seeking his help to defend a young boy, Teddy, accused of murder.  There’s nothing straightforward about this case: Teddy is accused of murdering an associate of the Kray twins, and he’s reluctant to talk. Senior politicians are involved, Teddy is also in danger, and Charles tries to keep him safe.

In the meantime, Charles has a fight to prepare for.  He’s under pressure from both his Chambers and the Krays to drop his defence of Teddy, and Sally is not happy.  Life is further complicated when he is photographed with the Krays and Sonny Liston, and when a glamorous American actress enters his life.

There’s a twist in this story I didn’t see coming, as well as a couple of developments that had me wanting to throw the book across the room in frustration.  How, I asked myself, could such an astute observer of humanity be so stupid?  And that’s the thing with this series, Charles Holborne is both flawed and (mostly) likeable.  His legal brilliance is tempered by very human frailty.

This is the fourth novel in the Charles Holborne series, and while I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the first three, I’ll certainly be looking to read the next one.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Sapere Books for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Mary Cunningham: An Australian Life by Jennifer Horsfield

‘Mary Cunningham’s life spanned the last thirty years of the old century and the first thirty years of the new.’

After listening to Jennifer Horsfield speak about the history of the Tuggeranong area of the ACT, specifically about the Great War soldier-settlers, I was keen to read her other books.  The first one I located was this biography of Mary Cunningham (née Twynam). Mary Emily Twynam was born in 1869 in Goulburn, NSW, the second of eight children born to Edward and Emily Twynam.  Edward Twynam came to the colony from England in 1855 and would eventually become the Surveyor-General. The family home was ‘Riversdale’ in Goulburn.

On 24 April 1889, 19-year-old Mary was married to James ‘Jim’ Cunningham, a successful pastoralist who was 20 years her senior.  After honeymooning in Europe, the couple returned to Australia and settled on the property known as ‘Tuggranong’ in the Tuggeranong district. Jim and his brother Andrew Cunningham owned several properties, including nearby ‘Lanyon’.  Both were large sheep stations and up to 50,000 sheep were shorn at the ‘Tuggranong’ sheds.

The Cunninghams had eight children in 14 years, and Mary had several battles with what we now call post-natal depression. Despite her battles with depression, Mary took her role as a pastoralist’s wife seriously: attending balls and participating in various fundraising efforts.  The ‘Tuggranong’ homestead was a social hub of the district.

‘The day-to-day struggles of the small selectors and the itinerant workers who lived in the local area were remote from life at the Big House.  No wider gap separated the Cunninghams and other wealthy pastoralists from their local community than in the education of their children.’

By 1914, with the Great War looming, the Cunninghams moved to ‘Lanyon’.  This move was partly a consequence of the death of Jim Cunningham’s brother, Andrew, and partly because of planning for the new Federal capital.

Mary Cunningham’s life encompasses a period of great prosperity for pastoralists because of wool, the arrival of Federation, the creation of a Federal capital and the consequences of the Great War.

I found this account of the life of Mary Cunningham very interesting.  This is partly because of the European history of the Tuggeranong region, but also because of the issues she had to face.  This was a time of great change in Australia: from colony to country, with Federation bringing an end to the pastoral traditions of the Tuggeranong Valley.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Voices Beyond the Suburbs by Jennifer Horsfield

‘The Soldier Settlers of Tuggeranong.’

After the Great War, some 250,000 men returned from active service to try to resume their lives. A policy of land settlement was one of the ways the Commonwealth hoped to try to address their needs. For the men who applied for a block, it was a new start, a new beginning now that the war was over.  But few were successful.  Men walked away from their blocks, defeated by drought, rabbits, invasive weeds, uncertain markets, and debt.

I’ve lived in Canberra for over 45 years and, until I heard Jennifer Horsfield speak and then read this book, I was unaware that there had been soldier settlers in the south of the ACT. In this book, Ms Horsfield writes about the eight soldier settlers who were allocated land in the Tuggeranong Valley.  The eight blocks were part of the Tuggeranong sheep station and were made available on five- or twenty-five-years leases with payment of quarterly rent to the Commonwealth.

‘Two of the eight soldier settlers were married when they took up their blocks in 1920.  Of the other six, one never married, the others married in the 1920s, with one marriage ending in bitterness and separation.’

The most successful of the Tuggeranong farmers, with a twenty-five-year lease, was Darcy Thompson.  His was one of the few success stories.  Darcy Thompson’s son Ian was still farming the land when it was resumed by the Commonwealth in 1972.

I found this an interesting book about a part of Canberra’s history of which I knew very little.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Snatched by Gillian Jackson

‘Danny loved his new school.’

Danny Stone is walking home from school one day when he is snatched off the street and bundled into a vehicle.  Danny is eleven years old.  Danny finds himself locked in a room in a semi-derelict building.  He is alone, cold and hungry.

For Danny’s parents, Martha and Richard, this is a nightmare.  Who has taken Danny and why?  A ransom demand is made.  Martha knows that they should be able to raise the money requested, and surely Danny will then be released. But the nightmare is only just beginning.  Richard tells Martha that he’s made some investments and can’t come up with all the cash requested.

The kidnappers make contact.  Instructions for the delivery of the ransom are given.  The police are covertly in place, hoping to arrest the kidnappers once Danny is safe.  Richard drives off to deliver the money, but he doesn’t take the route mapped out.  Why? What is happening?  The police question him, but he lies.

In the meantime, Danny makes an unlikely friend.  He’s told that he will be released once the money is paid.  Danny would like to believe this, but he is understandably anxious.  Can he escape?

It’s difficult to write more about the story without spoiling it.  Richard has secrets, secrets which may destroy his marriage and will undermine the efforts to release Danny.  There are a few twists in this story, there’s plenty of tension, and a couple of surprises before the end.


Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Sapere Books for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The True Colour of the Sea by Robert Drewe

‘Dan dropped dead on the sand and that was that.’

Eleven short stories, and I enjoyed them all.  Different views, different coasts: from Australia to Cuba, and to an island in the Arafura Sea.  I have three favourites: ‘Lavender Bay Noir’ (in which a man is trying to prepare for Olympic trials in swimming); ‘Black Lake and Sugarcane Road’ (in which a conversation begins between a young, scarred woman nurse a baby and a passer-by, who spotted a python slithering into her picnic basket) and ‘The True Colour of the Sea’ (in which an artist is abandoned on an island in the Arafura Sea and wonders about its true colour).

Each story drew me in, took me on a journey, and left me wanting more.  Not because the stories were incomplete but because Mr Drewe can, with comparatively few words, imbue his characters with life and purpose.

I finished this collection thinking about the restless nature of the sea.  The sea has many true colours, and any quest to identify a single colour is surely doomed.

If, like me, you are drawn to the sea, you may also enjoy this collection of short stories.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Other Wind by Ursula Le Guin

‘Yes, it was a good voyage, Gamble, though the end of it is still in doubt.’

If you have never visited Earthsea, don’t start here.  This is the final book in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, the place to end your journey.

It’s been a long time since I visited Earthsea, that imaginary archipelago, with its ancient language of creation.  I had forgotten much of the detail, but not the power of knowing someone’s true name.  I had not forgotten the dragons.  I had not forgotten wondering about an overlap between Earthsea and the ‘real’ world.  And if you can imagine that overlap, then it is hard to put this book down.  The dead appear in dreams, trying to draw us into their world.  They seek to do this through Alder: to free themselves and invade Earthsea.

You’ll need to read this book to find out what happens next and how the series ends.  Me, I’ll be going back to the beginning.  It’s been over forty years since I picked up the first book in the Earthsea series.

‘What was built is broken.  What was broken is made whole.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith