Mrs Whitlam

Dark emuAustralian Indigenous authors are writing significant works of fiction, telling their own stories in their own voices. Writers for adults include Kim Scott, Alexis Wright, Melissa Lukashenko, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Larissa Behrendt and Tara June Winch.

There are also prominent and emerging Indigenous authors writing for children and young adults, including inaugural Australian Children’s Laureate, Boori Monty Pryor; Bronwyn Bancroft, whose work will be celebrated at the IBBY conference in Auckland in August; Dub Leffler with Once There was a Boy; Brenton McKenna; Sue McPherson; Elaine Russell; Anita Heiss; Jared Thomas; Ambelin Kwaymullina; Ambelin’s mother, Sally Morgan; and Bruce Pascoe.

Sally Morgan is currently shortlisted for the CBCA awards with her verse novel about stolen children, Sister Heart, and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu was joint winner with Ellen van Neerven of the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards inaugural Indigenous Writers’ Prize. Pascoe’s book also won overall Book of the Year. These names and others unite to form a potent “who’s who” of contemporary Australian writers.

FogBruce Pascoe’s novel for middle school (upper primary and junior secondary) Fog a Dox won the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Award in the young adult category.

I reviewed his next novel for younger readers, Seahorse for the Sydney Morning Herald.

His recent novel for children Mrs Whitlam is another incisive, unsentimental tale. Marnie Clark is given a horse named Mrs Whitlam. The horse’s former owner, Vicki, has died and her mother can’t bear to have the horse around as a reminder of her loss. Marnie would prefer another name but she knew her mum would say, ‘You should be proud to have a horse named after that lady – she was a wonderful woman, her old man wasn’t a bad bloke, either, even if he was Prime Minister. Did a fair bit for black people too!’

Marnie is bullied and harassed at times but the cause may not necessarily be because she is Aboriginal. Indie a girl from pony club, for example, feels she has to be better than anyone, and Marnie may be a threat because of her skilled riding.

mrs_whitlam_high_res_Marnie has a blissful experience riding Mrs Whitlam (Maggie) to the river and sea. Owning a horse gives freedom. But her beach escapade becomes terrifying when she and Maggie save a drowning baby. A family BBQ with popular George follows, but the book’s conclusion is strangely abrupt.

This is a clear-sighted story for readers in primary school and I particularly appreciate how Bruce Pascoe depicts Aboriginal children and families as being like everyone else. Like Tony Birch’s recent work, Pascoe allows the characters’ Aboriginality to remain in the background without ignoring it. They are strong characters in their own right.

The excellent Magabala Press has published all of Bruce’s books mentioned and I have previously interviewed Bruce for Boomerang Books Blog.Seahorse