The White Girl – Tony Birch

Odette Brown is raising her granddaughter, Sissy in a small, rural Australian town that has lost many of its Aboriginal residents. It is sometime in the 1960s. Sissy turns 13 early in this story, receiving her first bike as a gift, cobbled together by Henry, the white guy at the junkyard who had some intellectual disabilities because of an accident in childhood. Other white kids bullied Henry so he made friends with Aboriginal kids. As an adult, he is still mercilessly bullied by the Kane brothers. Odette’s daughter Lila as a young teenager, did not tell her she was pregnant, and she never identified the white father. When Sissy turned one, Lila left them. In 1960s Australia, government programs were still formally in place to involuntarily remove many Aboriginal children from their families, particularly those who were mixed race. The goal was assimilation and much has been written about this in recent years. Every Aboriginal child was born a ward of the state and remained so to age 18. The government monitored families through assigned protectors, in this novel, the local police chief. Children could never travel beyond a certain area, even with family. Adults needed travel permits.

A new guy is taking over from Bill Shea, the alcoholic chief who has generally let everyone live and let live and the new guy takes his role as being in charge of the aboriginal children in town very seriously. Just as Odette finds that her guardianship of Sissy could be threatened by the new chief, Sissy attracts the attention of the Kane brothers. Birch writes a compelling/heartwarming story about family, a girl and her Nan, who are so close and it is obvious to the reader they belong together. He also writes a story of horrific government policies that affected generations of Aboriginals, through stories of various characters we meet or hear about. A mother whose two daughters had fair skin and red hair loses them to the mission school far away and the pain is palpable.. A man who got an exemption certificate that lets him travel freely but this means he may not interact with other Aboriginal people. The new chief’s descriptions of his legal power over Sissy’s and can do what he likes about her future. The stories of activists seeking citizenship, repeal of destructive laws and new rights. A hotel receptionist who is a bit too interested in the black woman traveling with a young white girl. Henry. The Kane brothers. Each with a back story and history of very different interactions with the Aboriginal community. Birch, who is indigenous to Australia makes this story accessible without watering down the history. It is a fast, educational, engaging and moving read. Highly recommend.

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