Cathy McLennan, Saltwater (UQP 2016)
Don’t be misled by the sales pitch on the front cover of Saltwater: ‘An epic fight for justice in the tropics.’ It’s not exactly false, but in so far as it suggests a grand fictional narrative, it’s certainly misleading. This is Cathy McLennan’s account of the first months of her employment as a brand new barrister. A non-disclaimer after the title page begins, ‘This book is a personal account based upon real events, real crimes, real people and real court cases.’
I was predisposed to like it because it mentions my niece Paula Shaw’s Seven Seasons in Aurukun in its acknowledgements. It turns out that it has a lot in common with Paula’s book. Paula went as a teacher to Aurukun, where she was confronted daily with the failure of the education system to meet the needs of the Aboriginal community; Cathy McLennan worked for the Townsville and Districts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Corporation for Legal Aid Services, and was confronted by the even greater, more tragic failure of the legal system.
The central narrative involves four young Aboriginal men who are accused of murdering an older white man, a case that landed on McLennan’s desk in her first days on the job. She is inexperienced, but the service is underfunded and understaffed, so she is given responsibility for the case. At first she is convinced of the innocence of the four, and it looks as if a standard TV episode narrative of vindication of the clients will unfold. This story, being real, is both more interesting and complex than that, and also much grimmer.
In this, and the other stories, particularly that of an appallingly abused eleven-year-old girl who meets with half-hearted good intentions from Children’s Services and peremptory punitiveness from the court system, the book forces its readers to look directly at the level of damage being done to children in places like Palm Island. She doesn’t spend time analysing the causes. She doesn’t need to. At every turn, Aboriginal people are struggling to do right by the young ones, but their efforts are thwarted by the result of the damage they have suffered and by indifferent, even hostile government bodies. Nor does she propose solutions: this is an account from the front line of a non-Aboriginal person trying to be of use, and coming hard up against the horrors (not too strong a word) of some Aboriginal lives, not a political tract.
My sense is that this is a book that should be widely read, especially by non-Indigenous Australians, but that it should be read along with any number of other books, because read alone, even though there are many strong, smart Aboriginal people in its pages, it could easily be read as preaching despair. But read alongside, say, books by Aboorignal people like Lesley and Tammy Williams’ Not Just Black and White, or Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country, or by other non-Aboriginal people who work with remote Aboriginal communities, like Andrew Stojanowski’s Dog Ear Cafe or (added later, thanks to Jim Kable in the comments) Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful, it’s a powerful addition to the knowledge pool.
Saltwater is the fifth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.