Some books are difficult to read. This is one of those books. It’s difficult to read because it reminds us, uncomfortably, of the treatment of many Indigenous children in this country. And sometimes, we need uncomfortable reminders.
‘I have always wanted to write a book about my own life. It’s something I thought about so many times over the years, but doubt would take over and I convinced myself I would do it later when the time was right.’
This is Ruth Hegarty’s memoir, an account of the first part of her life as a dormitory girl in Queensland’s Cherbourg Aboriginal Mission. It’s a heartbreaking account of the impact and consequences of a policy which divided families, replacing family structures with rigid dormitory life. When Ruth was left for ‘just a little while’, it turned out that she remained a dormitory girl from the age of four until she married some eighteen years later.
‘Mum decided to go with her parents. She told me she decided to go because it was only supposed to be for “just a little while”.’
Ruth was one of many Indigenous children removed from her family and placed into an institution – in twentieth century Australia. The girls in Ruth’s dormitory formed their own strong, lasting bonds, their own support network. They received a very basic education, had to live with inflexible rules in very basic accommodation.
‘I don’t think any of us were aware that what we were being taught was barely enough to get into any work other than domestic service or farm labouring.’
This is an uncomfortable memoir to read. There are many reminders of how Indigenous people were (and often still are) treated differently. Many examples of the cruelty of institutional life, of punishing children for wetting the bed, for breaking any one of a multitude of rules.
As Ruth so perceptively writes:
‘Our children, through no fault of their own, could end up making the same journey as we had made, and achieving nothing.’
‘If this book is not met with too much approval, I do not apologise. These things actually happened.’
Role models are so important, for all of us. And so is acknowledging the past. ‘Is that you, Ruthie?’ is an important account, of a deliberate policy that most of us would prefer to forget or ignore.