Category Archives: Book reviews

‘State of Wonder’ by Ann Patchett


2011, 353 p

I don’t often think of films while I’m reading a book, but I did this time.  A few months back I went to see ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ (my short review here). I was rather nonplussed by the lack of plot in the movie at the time, but it complements this book beautifully.

Marina Singh is a 42-year old research scientist, working on cholesterol drugs for a pharmaceutical company.  Like Barak Obama, she was the daughter of a white American mother and, in this case, an Indian graduate student who returned to India.  When a research colleague, Anders, dies suddenly on the Brazilian Rio Negro, Marina is encouraged by her boss (with whom she is having a clandestine affair) and Anders’ widow, to go to find out what happened and, indeed whether Anders is even dead- something that his widow cannot believe. Anders himself had been sent by the pharmaceutical company to find out what happened too, but in this case the object of his enquiry was the intimidating Dr Swenson, who had been ensconced in the Brazilian jungle for years, working on a bark-based fertility potion observed amongst the Lakashi tribe. Lakashi women gave birth right throughout their lives: a burden to them, but a honey-pot to any Western pharmaceutical company catering to infertile Western women.  Dr Swenson had been funded by the company to undertake her research in Brazil, but she was not forwarding her results or progress to them.   Now that Anders had died, Marina was sent to follow up.

Marina knew, and feared Dr Swenson.  She had encountered her during her hospital internship as a doctor, when Dr Swenson castigated her for a surgical error, prompting her to leave medicine for good.  Now Marina meets her again, unsure whether Dr Swenson even remembers her.  Dr Swenson has surrounded herself with protectors, intent on blocking the company’s inquiries.  The doctors who work in her research program alternate between love and fear of her, and all the tribespeople obey her. Almost against her will, Marina finds herself being drawn into Dr Swenson’s orbit as well.

There are echoes of Conrad’s Kurtz here (can any book about the jungle ever escape parallels with Kurtz?) and it raises questions about the pharmaceutical industry and the ethics of fertility treatment in the face of other more urgent public health demands.

This book reminded me very much of Patchett’s earlier book Bel Canto which I read in 2002 and then again in 2014 for my bookgroup (but oddly enough, did not review in a blog post). Bel Canto, set in Latin America, involved a group of opera-lovers at a house concert being taken hostage by terrorists.  There was an opera element in State of Wonder too, but the most striking similarity is that in both books the author placed a group of people in an isolated setting, feeling powerless but increasingly coming under the thrall of those exerting power over them.  However, where in Bel Canto she managed to move between characters and fill them out, in a rather cinematic fashion, in this book there was really only one really robust and memorable character- Dr Swenson.  The other doctors in the group never really emerged as individuals, and even Marina as the main character seemed rather ‘thin’. It’s not clear why Marina was satisfied enough with the affair with her significantly-older supervisor Mr Fox, and there were too many pages spent in the Brazilian metropolis of Manaus, where Marina was deflected from travelling to the jungle by a young married Australian couple, Mr and Mrs Bovender, who are house-sitting Dr Swenson’s city apartment. There is much attention paid to Marina’s vivid nightmares, induced by the anti-malarial medication Lariam, a plot detail which takes on more significance by the end of the book.  It’s a relatively long book, and it meanders almost as much as the river that dominates the setting.

That said, I did find it rather compelling and did want to keep reading it. It was a book that was more rewarding during the act of reading, rather than thinking and discussing it afterwards.  In this case, I arrived at bookgroup having quite enjoyed it, but by the time we’d finished pulling it apart, the ‘State of Wonder’ seemed a little less wondrous after all.

My rating: 7/10

Read because: CAE face-to-face bookgroup




‘Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Bush Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet’ by Jennifer Gall


2017, 192 P & notes

I can remember how disappointed I felt when I first read Graeme Davison’s article ‘Sydney and the Bush:an urban context for the Australian Legend’, published in Historical Studies in October 1978 [1]. It was written some 20 years after Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend and it argued that the bush legend sprang not from the trenches of the goldfields or Gallipoli, but from the streets of central Sydney. How un-bush-like!  I couldn’t remember the details, but I did remember a map of Sydney, with dots depicting all the places where the ‘bush’ writers (Lawson, Price Wurung) lived, often in boarding houses and close to the radical centres of urban Sydney life.  Where were the ‘lowing cattle’ and  stringy eucalypts there?, I wondered.

I’ve only just gone back to look at the article to refresh my memory, and my eye snagged on Davison’s qualification that “’Banjo’ Paterson was the one important figure with even fair ‘bush’ credentials” (p. 192)  That’s good, then, because I’ve just finished reading Jennifer Galls’ book Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Bush Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet. The crux of her argument is that Banjo (Andrew Barton) Paterson’s  short stories and poems like Clancy of the Overflow  and The Man from Snowy River drew on his childhood upbringing in small country towns in New South Wales (close to Orange and then Yass) and the influence of strong women of the bush- women much like his mother, Rose.

The author, Jennifer Gall is a curator at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, and this is at least the second book of hers that has been published by the National Library of Australia.  I’ve been thinking about why a library, in particular, might publish a book about an individual.  In some cases, the subject has achieved fame, and the documentation held by the library or museum might be published to add an extra dimension to their already-public character (I’m thinking, most pertinently, of Germaine Greer’s archive which is about to become available from the University of Melbourne archives).  Alternatively, the library or museum may hold a collection that is notable for its completeness, or the illumination it throws on otherwise-undocumented, lived experience, but the creator him/herself is unknown (and I’m thinking here of the Goldfields Diary held by the State Library of Victoria). In such cases, the publication of a hard-copy, illustrated book would be a way of bringing the wealth of that particular archive to public attention.

Looking for Rose Paterson is a combination of both these spurs to publication.  As the title and cover design lettering suggests, this book is indirectly a commentary on the famous Australian writer Banjo Paterson, but the larger emphasis is on his mother Rose Paterson, rather than her son.  The book is based on the collection of thirty nine of Rose Paterson’s letters written to her younger sister Nora Murray-Prior between 1873 and 1888 and available online at  The letters had once been part of the Murray-Prior estate and were crammed into an old sea-chest that had been cleared out of a family home.  In this regard they are like the family letters of any family that has had the education to generate and value the letters in the first place, and the wealth and stability to keep family documents through a limited number of shifts of location and strong family ties. The letters were purchased by academic Colin Roderick,  author of several books on Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, who recognized the significance of the placenames and personalities (Banjo himself and  Nora’s step-daughter the author Rosa Praed) and hence the letters also have value because of their links with famous people. Roderick  published the letters in 2000 and offered the letters to the National Library.

So who was Rose Paterson, other than Banjo Paterson’s mother?  In her own right, she lived and died without recognition beyond her family. She was born in 1844 in Australia, four years after her parents had arrived separately in the colony on the same ship. She was part of the lineage of a pioneering pastoral family. Her mother had educated her at home, along with her siblings in a standard classical education- English and French, and an introduction to the rudiments of Latin, Greek, German and Italian.  She married at the age of 18 in one of those sisters-marrying-brothers constellations found in many family trees. Her husband, Andrew Bogle Paterson  was often absent on pastoral work on the three stations co-owned by the brothers in NSW and Queensland.  When the elder brother John died suddenly at the age of 40, his remaining brother Andrew lost the stations but was kept on at their Illalong station as an overseer.  It was in this environment that Banjo Paterson grew up, with his three siblings and cousin, and it was here  at Illalong that Rose wrote to her younger sister Nora, who lived with her much-older husband Thomas Lodge Murray-Prior along with her twelve step-children and eight own children. One marvels that Nora had time to correspond, but judging from Rose’s side of the correspondence (Nora’s is lost), she clearly did, facilitated most probably by money and material comforts that her sister Rose lacked.  After the death of Rose’s husband in 1889, the connection with Illalong was severed and Rose shifted to her mother’s house at Rockend, in Gladesville, Sydney where she died in 1893 at the age of 49.

These are just the sort of letters that a historian craves. There is continuity and detail, and they provide an entrée to the world of women who have intermarried into a small subset of pastoralist families and who are known to each other.  Although Rose’s life at Illalong was hard, she maintained her connections with her much more genteel and refined pre-marriage life. The line between a wealthy squatter and an impoverished one was a permeable one because of clan connections, particularly in the Scots pastoral fraternity.  If you’re looking for details of interactions with the indigenous people who had either been ‘turned away’ or still lived and worked on the stations, you’re not going to find them here. Instead, through the intimacy of sisters who see each other on occasion at their mother’s house in Sydney and who take an interest in their nieces and nephews, we gain a family-based, woman’s-eyed view of childbearing, motherhood, parenting and social life. In this, I was reminded of the repository of letters by Anna Murray Powell in Upper Canada, and Katherine McKenna’s wonderful use of them in writing A Life of Propriety.    However, in Gall’s book the narrative is driven by themes rather than chronology, and what rich themes they are!

In Chapter 1 ‘This poor old prison of a habitation’, the circumstances by which Rose ended up at Illalong are detailed, but the chapter then moves to a discussion of sewing, mending, trousseaus and marriage.  Chapter 2 ‘All utilities and no luxuries’ highlights the drudgery of farming, the isolation and cheerlessness of living on a remote station, and the financial strain of drought and the poor remuneration for overseers.  Ch. 3 ‘Smuggle a bottle of chloroform’ was absolutely fascinating in exploring the experience of pregnancy – a topic that is delicately avoided in most colonial correspondence, particularly when the correspondence itself is infrequent, addressed to and read by the men of the family, and covering months of news, rather than the day-to-day.  The two sisters write about the pregnancies, births and losses of mutual acquaintances, and Rose’s letter to Nora after her nine-month-old baby died gives the lie to the assumption that parents were inured to the loss of children at a time of high infant mortality.  They write of the search for doctors, or failing that,  ‘gamps’ – midwives- and plans for confinement where there will be assistance. Gall points out that Australian women were more likely to call on a doctor during their confinement than women in Britain and Europe, who turned to midwives instead, suggesting that this might reflect the disproportionate rate of men to women in early decades of Australian settlement.

There is an abrupt change of pace and direction in Chapter 4, where Gall returns to the ‘Banjo’ thread of her narrative.  I found this rather jarring, as the spotlight is turned to the son, rather than the mother.  Having noted the dearth of commentary about Aboriginal people in Rose and Nora’s letters, it was startling to turn the page to see a full-length portrait photograph of Banjo, known to the family as ‘Barty’, aged possibly 2 or 3,  sitting on a chair with his Aboriginal nurse Fanny, who was barely more than a child herself.  Rose accuses ‘that horrid Black Fanny’ of allowing him to climb trees and injure his arm, but there is no other comment in the text (and presumably in the letters) of the presence of Aboriginal people on the station or in the domestic setting of the home.  This chapter is more chronological, briefly tracing through Banjo Paterson’s career,  the writing of Waltzing Matilda and his work as war correspondent.  Was this chapter necessary? I think maybe not, or perhaps it could have been better incorporated into the introduction, because it broke the narrative thread of the other chapters.

Chapter 5 ‘Judicious neglect and occasional scrubbing’ returns to the domestic world of childcare, child rearing and education. As an educated woman herself,  Rose placed high importance on education for both her sons and her daughters, and she sought to secure the best tuition she could with the limited money available to her.  For her sons, this involved boarding in Sydney to attend Sydney Grammar School, but for her daughters this involved tuition through a governess, and later through boarding with school teachers in nearby Yass, and the passing on of skills from one sister to another.   Chapter 6 ‘No better dower than a good education’ continues this theme, describing the career paths and life choices available to Rose’s and Nora’s daughters.  Rose’s awareness of the literary success of Nora’s stepdaughter Rosa Praed, and her responses to the books that she is reading hint that Rose could, perhaps, have been a writer herself – like Louisa Lawson perhaps? Chapter 7 ‘We shall have a fine houseful’ describes Roses’s social life and larger cultural world, which encompassed what could be termed ‘bourgeois’ families in the local area, wider contacts within the intermarried squattocracy families, and at her mother’s house in Sydney.  The chapter discusses etiquette, the importance of the piano, visiting protocols, weddings and country balls- and here again I was reminded of the Powell family in Upper Canada and the transference and ubiquity of middle-class domestic practices  across the colonies of the Empire.

The book finishes with a short summary of Rose Paterson’s legacy and returns to the theme announced in the title of ‘How family bush life nurtured Banjo the poet’ – something that I wondered if Gall was going to return to at any stage.  The book closes with an expression of regret that no photo had been found of Rose, but as we read in the obviously-later-written introduction, there is a photograph of her- and what a beautiful photograph it is.

The book is interspersed with reproductions of Rose’s letters on yellowed paper, with the ink faded to brown, and occasionally cross-written (the historian’s curse!). There are lengthy quotes from the letters in the text, marked with the icon of a pen-nib to denote when the original has been reproduced on the adjoining page, and as a reader you never felt that the author was holding the sources back from you.  The book is lavishly illustrated with images, only few of which relate directly to the Paterson family.  At times I wondered if the images were being used  too tangentially.  Barely two pages of text passed without an illustration, and the ‘coffee-table’ presentation tended to  detract from the scholarship of the work, in the quest for atmosphere and context.

I very much enjoyed this book.  As a historian of a ‘famous’ man myself, this archive of correspondence is just the sort that I craved and sought in vain,  in trying to flesh out the domestic world that lies behind us all- famous and unknown alike.   Gall has served us well, in presenting the archive, contextualising it within the milieu of nineteenth century Australian pastoralism,  and drawing out the themes of women’s lives in that class and environment.  I felt sorry to leave Rose- or rather, sorry that she left us- a sure sign that a  letter can reach  across time and generations.

[1] Graeme Davison ‘Sydney and the Bush: an urban context for the Australian Legend’ Historical Studies, vol 18, no 71, October 1978.

Source: Review copy NLA, courtesy Scott Eathorne, Quikmark Media

My rating: 8.5/10

aww2017-badgeI am posting this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Dreams From My Father’ by Barak Obama


1995, 2004, 442 p.

I was so downcast and discouraged by Trump’s inauguration that I decided to finally take Barak Obama’s memoir off the bookshelf where it has been languishing for years, and read it to expunge the current Presidential oafishness from my mind.  I knew that it had been top of the New York Times bestseller list for months and months, but nonetheless I was pleasantly surprised by the easy tone and Obama’s self-deprecating yearning to find answers to his questions over identity and masculinity.

This book was written in 1995,  before he took political office of any kind. Born in Hawaii, his Kenyan father had returned to his homeland while Barak was only two years old. His white American single mother remarried, and the family shifted to Indonesia, although Barak returned to the care of his grandparents in Hawaii when he was ten.  It was at the age of ten, too, that he met with his father for a short, awkward time, and never met him again. His father died in a car crash when Barak was twenty-one years old.  He was brought up on the myths of his father, told to him by his mother and grandparents, and much of this book deals with his disillusionment at how the rest of his father’s life unfolded, and his own search for identity as a mixed-race child, fitting neither into white or African-American society.

The book is divided into three parts: ‘Origins’, dealing with his childhood in Hawaii, Jakarta and New York; ‘Chicago’ set in Chicago (naturally) as he works as a community organizer in the African-American community, and ‘Kenya’ where he returns to meet his Kenyan family.  Having visited Kenya, I loved this last part- especially his description of the Mara which captured just how I felt about it!  His potted history of Kenyan colonialism, from the point of view of his Luo family, is masterful.

This is a beautifully written book, whether the author became President of the United States or not and, written in 1995, there is no consciousness at all that this could even possibly be his destiny. As a work of memoir, he has invented conversations and combined or renamed characters, but the book rings true to its very core.  I can’t imagine that there could be a greater contrast than that between ‘Dreams from My Father’ and ‘The Art of the Deal’, the memoir of the current presidential incumbent.

And look at this- a video from 1995, just after the book had been published. Oh, I miss that easy eloquence and gentle humour already.

‘Births Deaths Marriages: True Tales’ by Georgia Blain


2008, 224 p.

When an writer dies, I often make a point of reading one of their books. It’s an act of tribute, I suppose, even though the reality is that all books live on beyond their authors eventually.  Although the book has to stand on its own merits, the recent death of the author probably does affect the way I read it. With an older author I read the book as the affirmation of a career, and with a younger writer it’s with a sense of lost opportunities and books not written.

This is particularly the case when the book is a beautifully crafted memoir, as Georgia Blain’s Births Deaths Marriages most surely is. As the daughter of the writer Anne Deveson, Georgia Blain died recently with a brain tumour at the age of 51, one day before her mother also died after many years living with dementia. In this series of autobiographical essays, we have met the whole family- mother, father, husband and daughter, and the overwhelming feeling that I am left with is: “I think I would have liked you”.

The book starts and finishes with a chapter titled “A Room of One’s Own”. In the opening chapter, Blain returns to her childhood home, now up for auction, and remembers her mother typewriting in the 1970s as her children waited resentfully in the doorway, for the tip-tap of the typewriter to finish. In the essay that closes the book “A Room of One’s Own II”, she is now the writer, jostling with her husband Andrew for space in the shed at the back of their ugly house to use as a workroom.   The essays between these two bookends are arranged roughly chronologically, as she writes about her years in an ‘opportunity’ class for gifted students, travelling with her mother and brothers to Adelaide after her parents separate, losing her virginity, establishing a relationship with film-maker Andrew after other unsuccessful relationships, marriage counselling, having a child, buying a dog.  Her description of her ambivalence about motherhood is one of the most honest and raw accounts that I have read. Her descriptions of place are almost cinematographic: you can feel the hot prickle of the Adelaide summer; smell the salty tang of Sydney beaches and the dust of Terowrie, a disintegrating outback town, seems to coat your skin.  As with Helen Garner’s work in sketching both people and place, I liked the sharpness of her vision, as if she is looking through a window that is cleaner than the one I’m behind.

The book itself is not new: it was published nine years ago in 2008. Even though as the title suggests, the book is about relationships, it is also very much about the act of writing itself.  In an interview with Sophie Cunningham in Meanjin in 2008, she explains that the book started as a Ph D and that several chapters had been published in a range of literary journals, each with different editors. At the time of writing it, she had already published four novels and she reflects on her decision to write from her own life:

There is a private space and a public space, and within each there are many layers. I wanted to hold the private up to the light, to look at it and put it out there on the table for public viewing, but I need to think carefully about how I wanted to do this. (p. 128)… I believed and still do, that if I wrote about my own life and lives of those I love, I had to tell the truth. But foolishly, I believed the truth lay only in the immediate. (p 130)

It’s an odd mixture of the very ordinary  set alongside the particular circumstance of being the child of two journalists who had their own public personas, and as the sister of a brother whose schizophrenia was explored publicly in her mother’s own book Tell Me I’m Here. Most particularly, the essays are a conversation on paper with her parents as professionals.  She listens, with embarrassment, to an old tape of an interview her father conducted with Germaine Greer and realizes how ineffectual he was as journalist.  She describes her ambivalence over her mother’s writing about her brother, Jonathan, thereby making his story public property, in much the way that she has herself done in this book.

Indeed, much of the book is a dialogue with her mother as writer. After years of writing non-fiction, Anne Deveson tried to write a novel but was frustrated because it kept turning into autobiography or reportage. Blain, already a published novelist, decided to switch in the other direction:

We had switched places, my mother and I. And we looked at each other. Both mothers. Both writers. Both trying on each others shoes, taking a few steps back, eyes on our feet, before we glanced across, once again, curious as to how this had happened. (p 158)

Even though the chapters are self-contained, there is a real unity to the book, best captured by the circularity of the opening and closing chapters. She writes about the narrative problem of ‘finding’ the ending in a memoir, when life that still offered more. She found that she had reached the end of the book, almost without realizing it:

There was no need to search for it. It is right here where it had all looped back on itself, complete in this moment. Here is the place to stop, to pause before the next swoop of the arc continues following the path of all that has gone before, the same shape but a different line. (p. 163)

And a different line it certainly was to be, nine years later, even though she did not know that at the time.  Last year Georgia Blain began contributing a column to the Saturday Paper, talking about the brain tumour and the world of illness that she had been plunged into. The columns stopped late in the year.  Her friend, Charlotte Wood, wrote a beautiful tribute in the last edition for 2016. Yet in many ways and unconsciously at the time, Blain herself leaves us with her own words of comfort:

Because this is the place where I am, like my mother, writing about us. And I have so much more than I ever hoped for; I have love, work that I want to do, and a couple of rooms to move between each day.

My rating: 9/10

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book.


I have linked this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017


‘Reading in Bed’ by Sue Gee


2007, 344 p.

Although I’m well aware that I probably fit a reading-market segment very neatly (retired, university-educated, politically progressive, book-grouper, ABC watcher) I don’t like reading books that feel as if they have been written precisely to fit a market niche. Unfortunately, this is just how Reading in Bed felt to me, and the ‘Daily Mail Book Club Summer Selection’ sticker on the front was the probably final kiss of death in my approach to the book.

The book opens with two sixty-year old, long-time friends returning home to London from the Hay Reading Festival. Georgia has been recently widowed, and is wondering how to fill in her life.  Her thirty-one year old daughter has embarked on a relationship with a married man – not that she has confided this news in her mother- and Georgia needs to find aged care accommodation for her husband’s batty old cousin Maud.  Her friend Dido (and even the name annoyed me) is returning home to her noisy family, with her married children, grandchildren and her academic husband Jeffrey.  The two couples had been friends, their now-adult children are known and loved by each other, and they are all missing Georgia’s husband Henry after he died with cancer.  As the book unfolds, Georgia’s daughter needs to sort out her relationship with the not-quite separated Jez; there is trouble in Dido’s son’s marriage to Paula, Dido falls ill and comes to distrust the solidity of her marriage.

It’s like living someone else’s life vicariously, sprinkled with literary allusions that the well-read 60 year old female reader will recognize and BBC4 name-dropping that is familiar even to an Australian ABC watcher and BBC overnight listener. There are descriptions of meals and outfits – oh, how tedious- and page after page of internal monologue as each very ordinary character muddles through her own private but unexceptional little life dramas.

It is written in the present tense with an omniscient narrator who stumbles onstage occasionally, blinks and then scuttles back to the curtains:

In London, Georgia and Chloe do their very best. They go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve as they’ve always done. Both of them cry as ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ sounds in that pure high note through the crowds of people, but then, who doesn’t? I’m crying now, just writing about it. (p.334)

The dialogue is written almost like a play, with no quotation marks or ‘he saids’ and ‘she saids’. The narrative skips from one character to the other, with just a slightly larger space between the paragraphs.  No detail is too small.

Enough! I’m already living this middlebrow life- a term I very much dislike but somehow it seems particularly appropriate- and I don’t need to read it in this middlebrow book. That’s about six hours of reading that I’ve wasted- most of it in bed, just as the title predicts.

My rating: 5/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroup and read for bookgroup.

‘Hunt Them, Hang Them’ by Kate Auty and Lynette Russell


2016, 78 p.

This slim book of  78 pages stands in its own right as the account of a historical incident – that of the execution of Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener in Melbourne on 20 January 1842- but it is also (and perhaps more importantly) a contribution to the present-day debate over marking and commemorating the frontier wars in Port Phillip.

First- some background. In 2016 the City of Melbourne launched a public memorial to Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener on the corner of Franklin and Victoria Streets in Melbourne, close to where the two men were executed on 20 January 1842.  This was the culmination of a long campaign by activist Joe Toscano, who had been marking the anniversary of the execution of these two ‘freedom fighters’ over many years.  In laying the ground work for this memorial, the City of Melbourne commissioned a booklet by Claire Land available at  .


[Image attribution: By Canley (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons]

In response to this proposal for a memorial, historian Marie Fels, former Aboriginal Affairs Victoria heritage operations manager David Clark and Mornington Peninsula local historian Rene White published an article in Quadrant magazine titled ‘Mistaken Identity, Not Aboriginal Heroes’ available at   .  In speaking out against the proposal to commemorate Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener, they wrote:

Our problem with it is that it is history-lite, based mainly on secondary sources, with little primary research. It reads as an argument that Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner were resistance fighters deserving of memorialisation. Our research, based only on primary sources, demonstrates conclusively that they were not resistance fighters: on their own personal testimony, they shot and killed two whalers by mistake.

I have reviewed Marie Fels’ work previously (here and here) and I have seen her described as one among a number of  ‘benignist’ historians who, while not denying settler violence and injustice towards indigenous people, also point to co-operative strategies between settlers and indigenous people in early frontier history.  The journal in which their article appears, Quadrant,  is a right-wing publication which strongly supported Keith Windschuttle when he accused historians of ‘fabricating’ aboriginal history.  An interview with Fels, Clark and White reported in a Frankston local newspaper notes that when they had difficulty in having their criticisms of the Melbourne City Council memorial publicized (most particularly in the Age)  they turned to Quadrant which, perhaps not surprisingly, took up their article with alacrity.

This, then, is the context in which Hunt Them, Hang Them has been published.  The authors, Kate Auty and Lynette Russell, note Fels’ public opposition to the City of Melbourne commemoration, on the basis that Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener were convicted on the basis of ‘their own personal testimony‘.  In making their own argument they claim:

The events outlined here are just one part of an unfolding tragedy- race relations and the judicial process in Australia.  The ultimate question is whether these men received a fair trial and whether they should be memorialised.  We answer ‘no’ and ‘yes’. (p.7)

In making this argument, they delve deeply into the details of the arrest and trial of the Tasmanian prisoners. In particular, they raise questions about the manner of the arrest of ‘The Tasmanians’, an event I described in my ‘This Week in Port Phillip’ entry for 25-30 November 1841.  They ask why the Assistant Aboriginal Protector William Thomas, who was present at the arrest, was not called at the trial, and raise questions about the ‘admissions’ of guilt.  They question whether Judge Willis was biassed, most particularly  in his decision to force the trial in the absence of an important witness and against the application of the prosecutor, and they ask whether there was a conflict on interest on behalf of their legal counsel, Redmond Barry.

Their argument is framed very much within a consciousness of the intertwining of Port Phillip and Van Diemen’s Land history, an awareness strongly reinforced by Lynette Russell’s earlier work on sealers and whalers along both sides of the Bass Strait (see my review of Roving Mariners). They note that Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener were part of a ‘family’ (loosely defined) of indigenous Tasmanians brought over by Aboriginal Protector George Augustus Robinson, who had made his reputation as a ‘conciliator’ in Tasmania.

The opening chapter begins with a description of the historical actors most pertinent to the trial: George Augustus Robinson, who they (along with many others) portray  as a vain social climber; the vainglorious and unpredictable Judge John Walpole Willis (a view I also share) and mineowner William Watson, the shadowy ‘charlatan and liar , the only witness called during the trial.

Chapter Two ‘Context, conflict, cases, confessions’ describes the frontier resistance with the ‘settlement’ of Port Phillip, fraudulently presented by John Batman (another Tasmanian) as a consensual, treaty-driven process.  In particular, they look to Major Lettsom’s ‘dispersal’ of  ‘Goulburn black’ men, women and children, a little over a mile from Melbourne in late 1840. This action, involving 58 armed troopers, culminated in the death of two indigenous men and the wounding of another, and the detention of 300 people in the Melbourne stockade. A dozen indigenous men were charged and nine were sentenced to ten years transportation. This occurred prior to Judge Willis’ arrival in Melbourne, and he  overturned all the verdicts on a technical miscarriage of justice. However, Willis’ findings in other cases highlight the unpredictability of Willis’ stance in indigenous cases.  The authors correctly identify Willis’ direction that his neighbour Bolden be acquitted as an important factor, occurring almost simultaneously with the Tasmanians’ trial.

Chapter Three ‘Hunting stories’ triangulates the accounts of three of the men involved in the pursuit of the Tasmanians in different capacities: the journals of  William Thomas and George Augustus Robinson as Aboriginal Protectors (albeit with professional differences in approach), and  military ensign Mayor Rawson who wrote an undated account ‘ Journal of an expedition after some Van Diemen’s Land Blacks who were committing depredations at Western Port on the Southern Coast of New Holland October and November 1841.’ As well as highlighting the bumbling farce that the pursuit became,  they remind us  that this occurred during the visit of Governor Gipps- an important event for Port Phillip pride and identity.

Chapter Four  ‘The Dispersal- a thrice-told  tale’ again takes the approach of triangulating three accounts: those of Frederick Powlett, the Commissioner of Lands and J.P. responsible for the Border Police contingent, Ensign Rawson as one of the military troops involved in the pursuit, and the Assistant Protector William Thomas.  The discrepancies between their accounts are most pertinent in the varying accounts they gave of ‘Truganini and the grave’ in Chapter Five where, along with the evidence of Corporal Johnson of the Border Police, there are different opinions over whether or not Truganini took her captors to the grave of the murdered men and ‘admitted’ the murders and the varying involvement of the indigenous men and women who were now being charged.

Chapter Six traces through the committal before a bench of magistrates, which was attended by Judge Willis, a permissable but unconventional practice that he undertook, claiming oversight of all justice in the Port Phillip District as its only resident Supreme Court Judge.  Moving on to the Supreme Court trial in Chapters Six and Seven, Auty and Silver stress the significance of the absence of three important witnesses who were present for the committal but not the Supreme Court trial.  In particular, they ask why and by whom Assistant Protector Thomas was prevented from attending – a point now revealed by the recent and very valuable (but prohibitively expensive)  publication of Thomas’ journals by Marguerite Stephens. They highlight the inappropriate interaction between George Augustus Robinson and Judge Willis, and Willis’ indulgence of sloppy testimony from Commission of Lands Powlett, (especially in the light of the lambasting he had recently given Aboriginal Protector Charles Sievewright in the Bolden case).  The authors suggest that Willis may have been smarting under the criticism of George Arden from the Port Phillip Gazette, but as I have shown through several This Week in Port Phillip postings, Willis well and truly had Arden’s measure.  I don’t dispute that Willis was very aware that this was a ‘hot-button’ case, but he didn’t need Arden to tell him that.  They finish their book with a brief description of the hanging.

Have they convinced me about the shortcomings of the trial?  Yes- most particularly in regard to Assistant Protector Thomas’ absence, who would have provided a completely different angle. In other cases where Willis had an interest in seeing a particular outcome- in the case he heard against Bolden, for example- he would have picked and picked until it all unravelled. But Auty and Russell, along with Claire Land in the Melbourne City Council publication, sidestep the issue that Fels has emphasized: that two whalers were murdered.  The Tasmanians admitted this, and said that it was a case of mistaken identity because they intended retribution against William Watson instead.I think that the jury understood this, whatever the shortcomings of the trial. I have always been struck by Willis’ rejection of the jury’s recommendation to mercy when he called for the death penalty, to which Gipps agreed.

Auty and Russell’s argument for memorialization is based on the insufficiencies and failures of the trial:

This case is tainted.  It unfolded at a time when ‘near enough was good enough’ for Aboriginal people in legal settings.  We no longer should accept that reasoning. If there is a memorial to Redmond Barry, a street and a river named for Powlett, an inlet named for Anderson, a creek named for Watson and a town named for Rawson, then Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener should have their own travails recognized. (p.73)

While they have convinced me about the shortcomings of the trial, I’m not convinced that they should be memorialized for this alone. I should imagine that this justification would rankle with Fels, Clarke and White too, who suggest that Winberri, who was shot in Major Lettsom’s raid is a far more fitting “Melbourne hero” to merit a memorial. For myself, I have never been comfortable with the ‘freedom fighter’ frame that has been placed on this episode- a point well made in the Fels article.


Whatever my reservations about the design of this memorial (and yes, I do have reservations), I absolutely love the image of the Wurundjeri elder, Barak, that has been shaped out of the white building behind.

[Image attribution: By Leighblackall (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons]


I am posting this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge page.  In a way, it’s a 3-for-1 review, because all three texts that I have mentioned in this review are written by women, which is in itself interesting. I strongly suggest that you dip into all three. Hunt Them, Hang Them is available for $28.95 through Justice Press, while Fels’ Quadrant article is available here,  and Claire Land’s City of Melbourne booklet is here.  Auty and Russell’s book and Fels’ article both draw heavily on primary sources, and there is much commonality between them until the political implications are drawn out. Even if you just read the two online sources, you’ll see historians at work, raising good questions about the rationale and impetus for memorializing in the present-day.






‘Australian Women War Reporters: Boer War to Vietnam’ by Jeannine Baker


2015, 272 p.

Each night I sit down to watch the ABC news and just accept as a matter of course the presence of Lisa Millar in London, or Anne Barker in the Middle East telling me what new tragedy has occurred or which new crisis is emerging. Yet, when I think of reporters from far-off places in the past (and particularly in war zones) my mental picture is of a male reporter: Charles Bean in WWI,  or Neil Davis in Vietnam, Greg Shackleton in East Timor or more recently, Eric Campbell.  When did it become commonplace for a woman to be a foreign correspondent, even and especially in a conflict zone?   I’m also conscious  of the recent death of Claire Hollingworth, the famed (and very old) British WWI war correspondent.  I wasn’t aware, until I read this book, of any Australian women war correspondents that I could name from the top of my head.

In this book, Jeannine Baker argues that there have been female journalists in all the conflicts in which Australia has participated since Federation.  Their numbers are, admittedly,very small but not insignificant: she estimates that between 1900 and 1975 more than thirty Australian women reporters wrote for a range of London-based and Australian-based publications. They have been largely overlooked and do not have the prominence of male Australian journalists, and their role is seen as minor compared with their American and British female counterparts.  However, this, she suggests, is not so much a reflection of their ability but because the experiences and writings of women journalists were largely shaped by their national identity as Australians first and foremost, with the Australian armed forces particularly resistant to female war reporters, right up to the Vietnam War.  Partly this was a result of the “shut it down” reaction to publicity still exhibited by the ADF to this day, but it also sprang from a belief that the war front was no place for a woman; that they would have inconvenient toileting requirements; that they would distract the men and provoke them into a misplaced chivalry at times of crisis. Other countries changed their thinking about women reporters long before Australia did.

The book is structured chronologically, bookended by an introduction and afterword.  While she does namecheck probably most of the thirty female war correspondents across the length of the text, she focuses on several women journalists in particular. As the title suggests, she starts with the Boer War, the first war to which Australian colonies sent troops. The book title concludes with the Vietnam War, but Baker’s analysis stretches beyond declared wars to encompass female journalists sent to conflict zones ostensibly under the watch of Australian troops as peacekeepers and ‘trainers’.

Several of these women journalists ended up reporting on wars -albeit from behind the frontline- under their own initiative. Agnes Macready was the first nurse to travel from Australia to South Africa, where for two years she worked as a nurse during the Boer War and, as a sideline, contributed articles to the Catholic press under the pen-name ‘Arrah Luen’. A convert to Catholicism, she found herself an outsider as an outsider in her religion, as an Australian and as a woman. She opposed Britain’s imperialist expansion and was sympathetic to the Boers from the start. A second ‘lady war correspondent’during the Boer War was Edith Dickenson, who wrote for the Adelaide Advertiser and the Chronicle, who travelled widely and alone throughout South Africa.  At first she was strongly pro-British but over time became more critical of the war and more sympathetic to the Boers. She was the only Australian journalist to give a first-hand account of the concentration camps into which the Boers were corralled, and this work was taken up by the British activist Emily Hobhouse.  During WWII Lorraine Stumm, already a journalist in London, followed her Australian-born husband when he was sent to Singapore, where under American accreditation, she reported on New Guinea.

Other Australian women journalists were able to gain access to conflict zones because they were already employed with overseas newspapers, a reflection of the greater mobility for a particular class of young, unmarried and independent Australian women. Just before World War I Louise Mack (who, as it happens, Sue at Whispering Gums has been reading in a different context) was working in London and persuaded her London newspaper editor to send her to Belgium, where she travelled as a free agent. Likewise, Katharine Susannah Pritchard, who had based herself in London prior to the war, was unable to convince her editor to send her to Serbia, so instead travelled to France to cover the Australian Voluntary Hospital there. During World War II Elizabeth Riddell from Sydney, worked at the Daily Mirror and was asked to open a New York branch. In that capacity, she travelled to Britain, where she wrote about the ‘war weariness’ of the Brits, an observation at odds with the ‘brave Londoners’ stance being promulgated by other local newspapers.

Other women happened to be in London when war broke out and offered to send their reports back to Australian newspapers. Margaret Gilruth, who wrote for a range of papers including the Courier Mail and the Mercury Herald, travelled to Europe before the Nazis invaded the Low Countries.  She held a pilot’s licence, and had good contacts with Charles Kingsford Smith and  Australian aviator Nancy Bird.  She attended and reported on Nazi rallies.   Sydney-born Ann Matheson from ACP travelled to Prague in 1938 and was in London during the Blitz, which she reported for the Australian Women’s Weekly.

But in general, the Australian armed forces were very reluctant to allow women anywhere near the frontline: more resistant even than the British and certainly more resistant than the Americans.  The Australian army did not permit women journalists to be accredited, issuing them only temporary passes on application.  Male journalists were not welcome on the front either, for that matter, but there was a strong view that the only role for a woman in war was that of a supporter or aide, through nursing or the female auxiliary service.  It was the relatively relaxed American attitude that eventually nudged Australia into allowing female journalists in war zones during the Vietnam War.

Women journalists in the Australian newspaper industry had had a very circumscribed role prior to WWII. Although women were granted equal pay in 1917, they were usually restricted to the lower grade payscales, with few opportunities for progress, and newspaper proprietors were keen to dismantle that equality.  I had not realized the significance of the advent of women’s magazines, most particularly the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1933. Although I don’t particularly think of the writers for the Womens Weekly today as journalists, during WWII its editors looked for ‘a woman’s view’ on the war.  Through this, and the enlistment of many male journalists with the outbreak of WWII, opportunities opened up for women to move beyond the ‘women’s pages’ to write about crime, courts, sports and stock exchange.  Male journalists did not take this quietly: there were criticisms of the quality of their writing and accusations of flippancy and it was made quite clear that men expected to resume their positions at the end of the war.

During WWII Tilly Shelton Smith from the Australian Women’s Weekly was the first woman journalist to travel from Australia to report from an overseas military theatre with the sanction of the Australian government and armed forces. However, it was a posting that almost destroy Shelton Smith’s career when the Women’s Weekly misjudged its audience and the military botched the organization of her tour. She wore civilian clothes, thus marking out femininity and difference from the troops, and she was charged with reporting “with a woman’s eyes” on the men at the garrison and training base at Malaya,who were awaiting deployment elsewhere. Shelton Smith was central character of her own reports with titles like “How I Met the Sultan of Jahore” or “I go to Curry Tiffin”. She revelled in the exotica of Malaysia and highlighted the physicality of the Australian soldiers. She was not allowed to accompany the troops, so she was restricted to reporting on the domestic conditions in the training camp, and her social contacts were largely amongst the officers. When she portrayed the living conditions of the troops like a holiday camp, she incurred the wrath of the troops; when she publicized the ‘taxi dancers’ (Malay women who were paid a small fee to dance with the men) she roused the enmity of the wives and mothers at home.  Many troops remained bitter about Shelton Smith’s reporting for decades after the war, although there was some acknowledgement later that some of the trenchant criticism was unfair.

Shelton Smith’s experience served as a salutary warning for other female war journalists. When Dorothy Jenner, who wrote as ‘Andrea’ in the Sun visited Malaysia in Shelton Smith’s wake, she was careful to avoid repeating such errors and wrote a much more positive approach, still from ‘a woman’s eyes’ but she was treated as ‘one of the boys’. She was captured and interned, and kept a diary during her interment, at great personal risk. Likewise when Ida Drain from the Australian Women’s Weekly visited Hiroshima after the deployment of the British Commonwealth Occupation force in Japan between 1946-52, she had learned from Tilly Shelton Smith’s experience. She devised her own official-looking uniform (even though it had no standing whatsoever) and only gently reproached the government over living arrangements for Australian men. She carefully avoided photos of Australian soldiers with Japanese women. Nonetheless, she too, was criticized.

However, as the authorities found, women journalists writing ‘with a woman’s eye’ had their uses when they wanted to stimulate enlistment in the women’s auxiliary forces.  On the homefront during WWII ‘lines of communication’ correspondents wore official uniforms and were taken as a group on a four-week tour of factories and auxiliary bases to report on women’s wartime contributions throughout Australia, at a time when interstate travel was restricted.

By Vietnam, women reporters were no longer kept on the periphery. Australian journalist Jan Graham from AP and Kate Webb from United Press International spoke Vietnamese and French respectively,although neither had Australian military accreditation, and these skills gave them entry to reporting the Vietnam conflict.  The ABC – with whom I started this review- was slow to embrace female foreign correspondents let alone conflict reporters, but they have gradually become more common. Australian soldiers were no longer warriors but peacekeepers or trainers, working in hot conflict zones across the globe.  At this point Baker moves to interviews with current practising reporters- Monica Attard in Moscow, Iris Makler in Afghanistan, Ruth Pollard, Ginny Stein etc.  Female correspondents are no longer allocated different types of stories: their editors now want stories not through ‘women’s eyes’ but through the eyes of the people who are experiencing the conflict. It’s almost the opposite of ‘drone’type reporting from above.

Baker’s book is based on her PhD and the several academic articles which arose from that work, and it is eminently readable. She has been allowed space to identify historians whose work she has drawn on by name, and her extensive bibliography reveals the breadth of sources she has used.  She has drawn on the newspaper and magazine articles that the women wrote, and interviews recorded with the journalists themselves over several decades, as well as interviews with descendants and current-day practising journalists. For the Shelton Smith chapter, she uses soldiers’ letters from the time and interviews with old soldiers who were in Malaysia when and after Shelton Smith visited.  Several of the journalists wrote their own books about their experiences, but Baker is prudently wary of journalistic ‘war stories’ in a professional sense: it is not only men who are prone to exaggeration or underplaying their professional ambition. In the case of Louise Mack in World War I,  Baker’s caution over the veracity of Mack’s claims is prompted by her analysis of Mack’s writings alongside established facts, and her critique of the highly coloured mythology that Mack wove around herself when she returned to Australia and embarked on lecture tours full of patriotic fervour and boosterist claims.

As Baker points out, the war  reporter often frames him or her self as ‘I’ in telling their story, but only male reporters were able to write ‘we’ by identifying themselves with the troops they were describing, even though this was often fanciful and based on exaggerated proximity.  The journalistic one-upmanship of claiming to be the ‘first’- a professional competition indulged by both male and female reporters- meant that individual women reporters did not have a sense that they were acting in a longer tradition of female reporters.  However, the change in the nature of war reporting by focussing on the human response (both for soldier and victim) meant that the type of  behind-the-lines, participant-based reporting that women had previously been restricted to creating by editors and army personnel who refused to allow their presence at the front, now became the genre of choice and an integral part of how we understand war.

As Baker argues, Australian women war reporters were at a particular disadvantage in their work because of the tight control that the defence forces exerted over their movements – far more than was the case with British and especially American female journalists.  Australia may not have a Claire Hollingworth or a Martha Gellhorn, but through this book Australian women reporters are brought out from the ‘women’s pages’ and the women’s magazines Australian Women’s Weekly and Women’s Day assume a significance not readily apparent at the checkout in the supermarket.  The women who wrote ‘with a woman’s eye’  provided a view of war probably far more congruent with our current conception of war than the military bluster of manoeuvres and patriotism that constituted much war reporting at the time.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

aww2017-badge I have posted a link to this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017 site.