‘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.