Sally Morgan begins her autobiography with a memory of visiting her father in the hospital when she was five years old. Post-traumatic stress from his wartime service sent her father to the hospital a lot, and when he was home, his behavior was unpredictable. The first third or so of this book covers Morgan’s childhood in Perth in the 1950s and 60s Perth. Besides dealing with her father’s illness, Morgan goes to school, spends time with family, and grapples with the various ways she and her family are unique. It’s not an unusual story–or at least it doesn’t appear much more unusual than that of any other eccentric family of limited means. The writing is adequate, but the style is sometimes choppy and episodic. There’s nothing much in the telling to make this story stand out, and if I’d known nothing about this book, I would have wondered why it exists at all.
The first several chapters of the book offers only hints at what sets Morgan’s story apart. At one point, she asks her mother what they are. Her classmates have said they aren’t Aussies, so what are they? Her mother says to tell her classmate her family is Indian, but she has nothing more to say about their background. Although Morgan’s grandmother< Daisy, lives in their house, Sally has been told nothing about her heritage. She has to wait several years before she learns that they are actually Aborigines. Her grandmother and mother decided years earlier to hide their background because the consequences of being an Aborigine were too painful. Better to let the children of Sally’s generation pass as Indian and avoid the misfortune their maternal ancestors faced.
Once this truth comes to light, Morgan decides to learn as much as she can about her maternal ancestors. Her mother and grandmother are, at first, reluctant to talk, but her great-uncle Arthur tells his story of how he worked his way out of poverty and servitude. He puts Sally in touch with others who knew her grandmother, and she finds out about the white men who most likely fathered her mother and grandmother. Gradually, her mother and grandmother soften in their attitude toward Sally’s research, and she’s able to hear their stories from their own mouths. She gives each of their first-person accounts a section of the book.
Although the writing never picked up for me, I can understand why this is an important book. Apparently at the time of its publication in 1987, not many works of Australian Aboriginal literature had been published. And the idea of cultural erasure and identity is potent. Morgan, having been raised in ignorance of her family heritage, has to figure out what it means. After she receives a scholarship granted to Aboriginal students, she’s accused of faking her history. Morgan is understandably indignant at the accusation, but she’s haunted by the questions it brings up:
Had I been dishonest with myself? What did it really mean to be Aboriginal? I’d never lived off the land and been a hunter and a gatherer. I’d never participated in corroborees or heard stories of the Dreamtime. I’d lived all my life in suburbia and told everyone I was Indian. I hardly knew any Aboriginal people. What did it mean for someone like me?
These are good questions, and the book is at its best when it focuses on them. Morgan’s book is important as a piece of history, but as a reader only slightly familiar with Aboriginal history and the Stolen Generations, I wanted more context. Morgan’s account is focused entirely on her family. There’s little sense of how typical their situation was. That’s not a fault of the book, but of the reader, but it is a fault that limited my appreciation of the work in front of me.