Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss

The prologue of this novel sets up what’s to come: it’s 1838 in Gundagai, Australia, and we’re with Wagadhaany, who is four years old, as she listens to her father telling a white settler that he shouldn’t build a house on the land by the river: it’s too flat; there’s a risk of floods. The white settler “mumbles something about Blacks not being smart enough to understand”; Wagadhaany soon thereafter hears her uncle say that the settlers “don’t understand the land, they just keep chopping down trees.” And we see Wagadhaany with her extended family by the river, where they camp and prepare food together: we see how connected Wagadhaany is to her uncles and aunts and cousins, not just to her parents and siblings.

Flash forward to 1852: Wagadhaany is working as a servant for that man from the prologue, who has built his house where he wanted to build it, and the rain comes down hard and harder. The river floods; the Bradley family and Wagadhaany move to the attic and then to the roof. Houses are swept away, leaving people clinging to tree branches, and Wagadhaany’s father, Yarri, rescues townspeople with his bark canoe, as do other men from the Wiradyuri camp by the river. The flood changes things for the Bradleys, and for Wagadhaany too. One of the Bradley brothers, James, meets and marries a Quaker woman, Louisa, who lost her husband and her parents in the flood; Louisa wants to befriend Wagadhaany, both because she needs companionship and because of “the desire of the Quaker family to see equality for the Aborigines of Australia.” And when James decides to move himself and his brother David and Louisa to Wagga Wagga, where he thinks the land will be better for cattle, Wagadhaany is taken along too, though she just wants to be with her family at Gundagai.

The book’s narration mostly stays close to Wagadhaany, though there are sections focused on other characters as well. Wagadhaany is smart and full of questions, and through her we see the large and small ways that the Bradleys and other white people mistreat Aboriginal Australians and the land. The Bradleys have always called Wagadhaany “Wilma”; after the flood one of the Bradley brothers starts trying to use her actual name, and Louisa calls her Wagadhaany from the day she meets her, but James keeps calling her Wilma, when he talks to her at all. And even though Louisa talks about equality and wanting to learn from Wagadhaany, her ideals aren’t always reflected in her behavior. At one point she tells Wagadhaany she thinks the town of Wagga Wagga would be better if there were more Quakers there; Wagadhaany wonders silently if things wouldn’t actually be better still if the settlers had the Wiradyuri values of community and respect for the land/living lightly on the land. (Even the children, we learn, know this: we read about them gathering “some small branches of eucalyptus leaves, which they have pulled carefully from low-hanging branches, knowing that they are only ever to take what comes easily to them, what the land wants them to have.”)

This book has a lot of heart and I was totally caught up in the story, with wanting to know how things would turn out for Wagadhaany. And I like how Heiss brings in various aspects of Australian history, and also how she uses words from the Wiradyuri language.






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