Saltwater by Cathy McLennan

‘This is the last time this story will be told.’

Well, this may be the last time Ms McLennan tells this particular story, but similar stories are still being told.  This book is based on Ms McLennan’s two-year period as a barrister for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service on Palm Island and in Townsville in the 1990s.

As a twelve-year-old, Ms McLennan and a group of year 7 classmates travel from Magnetic Island to Palm Island.  She writes that:

‘This is the day that changes the course of my life.’

Ten years later, she is as a twenty-two-year-old barrister.  And these are some of her experiences: a major murder case involving four teenaged boys, a young girl subjected to abuse. She writes about the impact of abuse, of neglect, of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, of a system failing to support those who need it.  Ms McLennan mentions the beauty of Palm Island (and of Magnetic Island), and the violence that occurs there.

‘No point in teaching these kids.  They’re past hope.’

I found this a difficult book to read.  I kept turning the pages, hoping that things would improve.  The subtitle of the book is ‘An Epic Fight for Justice in the Tropics’: it’s clearly a fight still underway. And in the meantime, more lives are blighted, ruined, destroyed. Ms McLennan is now a magistrate, and I wonder whether she’s been able to make more of a difference in that role?

It’s unutterably sad to read about the challenges faced by some members of Aboriginal communities, and it is unbearable to read about the responses of those in authority.  A vulnerable child returned to a community which has already harmed her.  A baby left with an incompetent parent because ‘there’s nowhere else’. A mother doing her best, but not getting the support she needs.

I’ve had a copy of this book since 2017, after a friend read and reviewed it. I was reminded of it after reading a review critical of the book at the end of 2019 and now I’ve finally read it.  I’d like to say that things are better, but I have family and friends who live in far North Queensland, and I know that’s not true.  I’ve been to Townsville.  It is a lovely city (if you are fortunate) but you don’t have to look to hard to see those who are not.

I feel saddened, and helpless.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith