‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 263 pages; 2019.

Tony Birch is an award-winning indigenous writer with several novels and a handful of short story collections to his name. The White Girl is his latest.

It’s set in the fictional rural town of Deane in an unspecified state of Australia. (The capital city is always referred to as “the capital city”, perhaps in an effort to make this story a federal / universal one.)  It’s the 1960s, the height of the Menzie’s era, when Aboriginal Australians are not regarded as citizens.

Under the 1905 Aborigines Act, their freedom of movement is curtailed and they must apply for a travel licence if they wish to leave their local area. Every Aboriginal child up to the age of 16  is under the legal guardianship of the state (represented, for instance, by the Chief Protector of Aborigines) and authorities are permitted to forcibly remove indigenous children away from their families, a devastating government policy we now refer to as the Stolen Generations.

Living under this Act is Odette Brown, whose own daughter did a runner more than a decade ago, leaving her to bring up her granddaughter Sissy single-handedly. Sissy is now on the cusp of becoming a teenager and is attracting the unwanted attention of the local hoodlums. Odette fears for her safety.

Odette also fears that the new overzealous policeman in town, Sergeant Lowe, is going to take Sissy away on the basis that she’s legally under his guardianship and is fair-skinned (therefore making her easier to adopt out to a white family). Keeping Sissy safe becomes Odette’s one abiding objective, but she finds this difficult because she’s struggling with an ongoing health issue that she’s hiding from everyone. That’s because she knows that if she is hospitalised, Sergeant Lowe will step in and remove Sissy from her care.

This story of an older Aboriginal woman doing everything she can to keep the authorities away from her granddaughter is essentially the entire basis of the plot. Will she succeed or won’t she?

Commercial fiction

I must admit that I was disappointed by this book. I had pigeon-holed Birch as a literary writer (this is the first book by him that I have read), but what I got here was commercial fiction. It’s a very linear story, told in a simple manner, and did not tell me anything I don’t already know about the Stolen Generations. Its simplicity and the easy going entertaining nature of the storytelling brought to mind Bryce Courtenay on more than one occasion.

The Australian literary critic Geordie Williamson apparently labelled the characterisation of this novel as “easy binaries”, for which Lisa of ANZLitLovers took him to task in her excellent review. I haven’t read Williamson’s review (because it is behind a paywall), so I can’t say whether his criticism is fair or not. But what I can say is that the story did feel a bit — no pun intended — black and white to me. It felt too simplified and some of the characters, especially Sergeant Lowe, too caricatured.

But I’ve come to the realisation that I am perhaps not the target audience for this book. It’s the kind of story that anyone could pick up, perhaps people who read infrequently or think books are a waste of time, and they would find it enjoyable and easy to read.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I actually think that it’s vital that this novel attracts as wide an audience as possible because this story, which is rooted in reality and all-too recent (and shameful) Australian history, is an important one to tell. Sue, at Whispering Gums, says it better than me in her review, claiming that “we need more novels like this [… that] are accessible, page-turning novels that have the capacity to reach a wide audience”.

So while The White Girl didn’t set my world on fire, I truly hope it’s a commercial success. The more readers who learn about the shocking ways in which Aboriginal Australians were treated by their colonial oppressors for nearly 60 years the better.

I read this book as part of ANZ LitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week, which coincides nicely with NAIDOC Week (7-14 July) here in Australia.

20 thoughts on “‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch

  1. I was disappointed with a different Tony Birch book but for the same reasons. Part of his not being literary, to me, is his unwillingness to be pinned down to specific locations. He ends up telling everyone’s story and no one’s. One other point, the Chief Protector in WA at least chose pale girls because they were his best chance to breed out the black.

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    • Yes, the lack of specific locations annoyed me… at first maybe I’d missed something but then I realised he had done it deliberately and that made it grate even more.

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      • I’ve been pondering this comment for a few days kimbofo, wondering why the lack of specific locations annoyed you or grated on you? I feel I’ve read a lot of novels that don’t give specific locations. Lucashenko does it in Too much lip, though admittedly we know roughly where it is ie Northern Rivers of NSW. But in fiction do you really HAVE to have a real place? Most books do but not all. (Thomas Hardy’s novels are set in a made-up county called Wessex!)

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        • I guess it’s the journalist / editor in me…If I was editing a news story, for instance, and the reporter hadn’t named the specific place the story occurred, it would go back to them to fix because detail is important — particularly location. Being specific adds a level of accountability, too: if you know where something happened it puts the event in context. Hardy gets away with it, because everyone knows that Wessex is really Dorset (and other bits of Berkshire / Hampshire / Wiltshire) and that “Casterbridge” is really Dorchester (Wessex is, in fact, an old Anglo-Saxon kingdom, so he didn’t really make it up at all).

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          • Yes, I know that Wessex (like Lucashenko’s Durango) is in a “known” region, but I do think that fiction should be allowed to be free. After all fantasy and sci-fi writers make up whole new worlds! Why shouldn’t any novelist make up a place if they don’t want to be limited to a real place and all that that can entail?

            I felt that Birch’s places were recognisably Australian and that was all he needed to do. He certainly avoids those nitpickers who say, “but the mission wasn’t across the river” or “the police station wasn’t across the road from the pub” etc. Those fact complaints about places in a novel really irritate me, when the “inaccuracy” is not germaine to the novel’s meaning. I love descriptions of place but it’s how it makes me feel, what tone the author creates, that’s important, not whether it’s factually correct. Does that make sense.

            For a news story, though, I reckon it’s a whole different ball-game. Place would be critical, I agree!

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          • Oh, I totally agree, and I’m being unfair… this is just one of my readerly bugbears thanks to 20+ years of journalistic brainwashing. I also blame my profession for the fact I can’t generally read novels written prior to the 20th century because I just want to edit the language all the time! My one exception is Hardy!

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          • BTW my husband would argue that the language of older novels is (usually) much better than that of modern ones. He’s much happier reading, say, Austen than Peter Temple or Jock Serong, because of the language.

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  2. Thanks for the link and the review that makes perfect sense to my reading of the book too – it is a simpler, more straightforward general fiction book.

    Interesting Bill. The other Birch I’ve read is Ghost River and that was very definitely Melbourne and the Yarra. I felt it was also more of this straightforward ilk too, though I don’t think I articulated that as clearly in that post as I did in this one. I still found them both enjoyable reads because they tread ground not well trodden in the popular fiction stakes.

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  3. Is there a different book you would recommend that gives insight about The Stolen Generations? I know very little about this appalling practice (I was shocked To learn that it prevailed right up until the 1970s)

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    • I can’t think of any fiction off the top of my head, but, as Lisa points out, it’s usually referenced in indigenous novels. As for non-fiction (that reads like a novel), perhaps try “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence” — it was made into a movie, which you might be familiar with…?

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  4. That’s an interesting question, Karen, because although there are memoirs aplenty about the Stolen Generations, there’s not actually much in the way of fiction though the issue usually features somewhere in novels by Indigenous authors.
    One of the best that I know was a children’s book, the name of which escapes me at the moment, which was about the children hiding underground (which was a common way of concealing them from the authorities.) It wasn’t a book I ever read to the students I taught, because it was so vivid, I thought it would frighten them.

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  5. Pingback: Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ Litlovers 2019 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  6. Oh dear, a copy of this is winging its way to me as I type this, ordered as a result of reading my own first Tony Birch: his story collection “Common People”, which I’m enjoying enormously (curiously, this collection includes a story called “The White Girl” and another about a fair-skinned Aboriginal girl called Sissy).

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    • Hmmm… I wonder if the short story in your collection has simply been expanded into a novel? I suspect it would work better as a short story…

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  7. I liked The White Girl very much. The story gripped me from the start, as I imagined even worse scenarios in some cases. Odette was a strong and interesting character, amongst others. Birch says that some characters were imagined as archetypes, but he also wanted to include complex characters (such as the drunken policeman). I have read two collections of Birch’s stories and enjoyed them very much. He is definitely a literary writer and hearing him talk about his work is rewarding because of this.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Marita. Glad to hear you enjoyed this book… and interesting to hear that Birch deliberately imagined some of the characters as archetypes…I’m guessing that’s because it makes it easier for readers to identify with them.

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