Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss

‘Not a good place to live, Boss, too flat!’

In 1838, White settlers are moving into the Wiradyuri country around Gundagai. Wagadhaany’s father, Yarri, advises one of those settlers, Mr Bradley, not to build on the Marrambidya floodplain. It may not have flooded recently, but it will flood. His advice is ignored.

In June 1852, Wagadhaany is working for the Bradley family, in the house being built in 1838. Heavy rainfall followed by devasting floods result in lives being lost. Yarri saves Wagadhaany and some of the Bradleys. When the Bradleys move from Gundagai to Wagga Wagga, Wagadhaany must move with them. Away from her miyagan, away from all that is familiar.

‘She hates being the Black woman who just has to do what the White people tell her. She is grateful to be alive, but she hates that being alive reminds her that she is still powerless in her own life.’

Wagadhaany dreams of a better life, of returning to her family and country. Her mistress, Louisa Bradley, wants to help the local Black children but how can Wagadhaany explain, from her position of powerlessness, the cultural differences? Will Wagadhaany find a life of her own?

Most novels about the 19th century European settlement of Australia are written from the settlers’ perspective, with occasional reference to the Indigenous people. This is the first novel I have read from an Indigenous perspective, with Wiradyuri language and customs gently requiring me to look at history from a different viewpoint. Wagadhaany and her family came alive for me, as did their relationship with country.

This is a beautifully written novel which took me into a world I thought I knew from a new perspective. I liked the way Anita Heiss’s use of Wiradyuri language made me stop to work out meaning from context (there is a glossary included at the end of the book). And while I was working out meaning, I reflected on the impact of European settlement on traditional life. We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it.

Highly recommended.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith