Paula Shaw, Seven Seasons in Aurukun (Allen & Unwin 2009)
Cassandra Golds, The Museum of Mary Child (Penguin Australia 2009)
Ursula Dubosarsky, The Terrible Plop (Penguin Australia 2009)
Stephen Whiteside, Poems of 2008 (self published 2009)
Noelene Martin, Freda (self published 2009)
Here’s a clutch of books I have more than a casual interest in.
I’ve told you about Paula’s Seven Seasons more than once, and may well do so again. Now I’ve actually read it. While it’s missing some of the juicier and possibly libellous moments of the early draft I read, it still offers plenty to chew on, and is also — Richard Aedy was right — a bit of a girl’s own adventure. More than 30 years ago I spent six weeks in a remote Aboriginal community with the Fred Hollows Trachoma Prevention Program. Just those few weeks were enough to unsettle my sense of what it means to be Australian. One of the other Trachoma-ites put it well, if slightly hyperbolically: I used to think Australia was a European country, he said, but now I realise it’s an Aboriginal country with a huge number of Europeans living around the edges. Paula spent a lot more than six weeks in Aurukun, and engaged in a way that shows up my stay at Willowra for the tourism it was. What’s more, she took on the challenge of wrangling the experience into words. I hope the book provokes a productive conversation. I expect it will give pleasure to most readers. But don’t take my word for it.
Early in the month, the publication of these books by former editorial staff members on The School Magazine was celebrated — nothing so grand as a launch — by a small lunch in town. I had the best gnocchi ever, the authors paid, and we enjoyed each other and the occasion in a way that might have been described as riotous if there had been more than a handful of us. But the pleasures of the lunch were pallid compared to those of the books. I hadn’t seen The Terrible Plop before, but I hope to see much more of it as a result of giving it to very young acquaintances: it’s a rhyming story of ridiculous terror in the forest that begs to be read repeatedly until it’s known by heart. The Museum of Mary Child is another book I read in earlier incarnations, as what is elsewhere called a beta reader. As a rule I’m not drawn to horror as a genre, and this is at least marginally a horror book – marginal because there are no vampires, ghouls or zombies. But I just loved it. I haven’t read the published version yet, but it’s been highly praised in the Aust Child Lit Crit journal Magpies as a ‘disturbing and quite terrifying’ book that ‘demands a special reader’.
This book slipped quietly into my mail box with a friendly note from the author. It turned out he’d used a quote from this blog as a back cover blurb, and I wasn’t embarrassed to see myself thus quoted. Stephen evidently plans to produce two very slim vols a year to sell at his performances, and his brief introduction to this one implies that he produced a number of poems in 2008 that didn’t make the cut. He’s a member or ARVOs (Australian Rhyming Verse Orators), a group who meet of a Sunday, presumably in the afternoon, to celebrate their shared passion for bush poetry. Poems of 2008 begins with ‘Triangular Cantaloupe’ a smooth parody of/tribute to C J Denis’s ‘Triantiwontigongolope‘ and proceeds on its cheerful way for 40 pages. There’s a touch of controversy in ‘A Puzzle’, which raises questions about euthanasia in a poem that an introductory note suggests might be for children. There’s political comment, in ‘Australia Spurns a Hero’, about Peter Norman, the white Australian athlete who stood on the podium with the two African Americans who gave the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics:
Norman is a hero, now, throughout the USA.
October 9 has peen proclaimed as Peter Norman Day,
And in Australia’s hist’ry a most sorry day is burned,
For Norman is the hero that his native country spurned.
You can get copies from the BookPod online bookstore or, while stocks last, wherever Stephen Whiteside is performing.
Freda is a self published book of a very different stripe, a biography of Freda Whitlam, launched this morning appropriately enough at the Whitlam Institute in the University of Western Sydney. Noelene Martin, the author, is a friend and neighbour of her subject, and I suspect she chose the self-publishing route to improve her chances of getting the book into print while Freda, now nearing 90, and her elder brother Gough were still around to enjoy it. Noelene is a veteran writer of non-fiction for children (much of it published in The School Magazine during my editorship, hence my interest in the project), and it shows here: while the meat of the story is in Freda’s career as Principal of the prestigious Croydon Presbyterian Ladies College in Sydney, Moderator of the Uniting Church, force behind the establishment of the University of the Third Age in Sydney, and so on, it’s the first hundred pages that really shine.
You can tell that, as well as sifting through piles of youthful correspondence, the author spent hours with her subject, listening to reminiscences. As she said today at the launch, the down side of seeing the book finally published is that all the secrets about Freda that she has held close to her heart are now general property. The little girl who knew the Greek alphabet, but not the English, before she started school; the teenager who walked seven miles from her tutor’s place back to school and couldn’t understand why the Principal made a fuss; the young woman at Yale on a Fulbright Scholarship who slept through a sermon by Eric Fromm; the beginning teacher on an excursion to Alice Springs who couldn’t stand to see a tourist haggling with Albert Namatjira and interrupted to buy a painting at exactly the price the artist was asking: the book recounts these and a myriad other minutely recorded incidents that are steps on a journey to a significant contribution to public life. (As a bonus, we get to see Gough as a shadowy but brilliant big brother.)
The launch was an imposing affair. A handful of distinguished Whitlams, including Gough in a wheelchair, and a hundred or so other people, mostly a good bit older than me, gathered in a spacious hall with modern stained glass windows and were addresses by the Vice Chancellor, Barry Jones (the launcher, who proclaimed with reasonable confidence that he and Freda were the only two people in the room who had corresponded with Ezra Pound, and conceded that she won the competition by having actually met him in the asylum in Washington DC), Noelene and finally Freda herself. Much had been said about Freda’s modesty (her entry in Who’s Who is apparently terse to an extreme and she doesn’t have a Wikipedia page at this moment). Her speech exemplified the trait: she hardly mentioned herself at all, but urged us to be glad at the publication of a book by someone from Western Sydney, about someone in western Sydney, when so many people think that ‘out here we don’t read’. Everyone has a story worth telling, she said, and it was good that one person’s story was being told in this book. In other words, she found any number of ways of praising the book while directing attention away from herself.
You would probably have trouble finding this book, but if you’re interested in Whitlamiana, in the history of the Uniting Church in New South Wales, the University of the Third Age, or the past as a fascinating other country, I recommend you contact the author-publisher at mrsmarty(at)aapt(dot)net(dot)au.