Sue Lawson, Freedom Ride (Walker Books Australia 2016)
This is a YA novel, that is to say, a novel intended for young teenagers. Its main character, fifteen-year-old Robbie Bowers, lives with his bank-employee father and his grandmother in the tiny fictional New South Wales town of Walgaree. Robbie’s a frequent target for the school bully and his cronies, and home is no refuge. His grandmother is prim, humourless and authoritarian, a terrible cook with nasty gossiping friends. His father is hardly any better, having come back to live with his mother after losing his wife when Robbie was a baby. The stage is set for a coming of age story, in which Robbie finds a way to independence of spirit, connection with some decent people, and perhaps even a little happiness.
And that is what plays out. Robbie is befriended by the young man who has come home from London to take over the caravan park when his father died. Robbie accidentally unearths some family secrets and lies, exposes his father and grandmother and their friends as terrible people, and ends up with the possibility of a new life opening up for him.
At the same time, the novel is about the 1965 Freedom Ride, in which a group of university students led by Charles Perkins hired a bus and travelled through rural New South Wales for two weeks, documenting the living conditions of Aboriginal people and staging protests at, among other things, RsL clubs that excluded Aboriginal veterans and swimming pools that banned Aboriginal an non-Aboriginal children from sharing the pool. The students arrive in Walgaree about four-fifth of the way through the book. In terms of the plot, they don’t do much more than provide a dramatic backdrop for Robbie’s climactic outburst. In fact, in terms of the plot, the terrible racism that is endemic in Walgaree serves mainly as a broader social justification Robbie’s rebellion against his father and grandmother: they’re not only mean, deceitful, and bad cooks, but they’re unmitigated genocidal racists.
A historical note at the back lists the 37 participant in the Freedom ride, and links it to the 1967 referendum, the land rights campaign, the setting up of the Tent Embassy and the apology to the Stolen Generations. The book clearly aims to informs a new generation of readers of a significant moment in Australian history. I think it will do that. However, I have two caveats.
First: even though there’s a language warning in the opening pages, the bruisingly racist dialogue, taken together with the focus on a white boy’s coming of age story while all but one of the Aboriginal characters are pretty one-dimensional, makes me think it’s a book that should be read alongside something by an Indigenous writer: Anita Heiss’s anthology Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, which I hope to read soon, comes to mind. And there’s a big list of Indigenous Australian YA book here. [Added later: In the comments below, Greenspace01 mentions A Bastard Like Me by Charles Perkins, who led the Freedom Ride and appears as a character in this book.]
And second: there’s not a lot of complexity in the non-Indigenous characters. The racists are all mean-spirited bullies, gossips, who are willing, down to the last one of them, to cover up the most heinous crimes agains Aboriginal people, and also they have horrible voices and are terrible cooks. The ones who take a stand against racism are good looking, warm, generous, and witty. Denouncing your racist family and getting the hell out of there is clearly the only thing to do. Sadly, it’s not always like that in the real world. It’s not that I wanted the book to soften its depiction of racism, but when the lines are drawn as simply as this, the story is unlikely to prompt its non-Indigenous readers to look at their own collusion in, or at best benefitting from, the oppression of Indigenous people.
Freedom Ride is the fourteenth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.