Inheriting the Land? - Some Literary and Ethical Issues in the Use of Indigenous Material by an Australian Children's Writer, 1960-1990


  • John Murray


Until the mid-century Australian children's writers in the main ignored the country's Aboriginal people just as writers for adults did.When they did not, they depicted Aborigines as the savages to be fought by heroic whites in adventure tales or as childlike servants on homesteads such as Mary Grant Bruce's Billabong. Maurice Saxby suggests that by 1941 the presentation of the Aborigine as savages, "noble or corrupt, was disappearing but lingered on vestigially. More frequently authors tended to regard the aborigines as cultural oddities or curiosities although there was a growing tendency to take them seriously" (p.l83). During the 1950s several children's writers took them seriously, a decade ahead of writers for adults such as Peter Mathers and Thomas Keneally. Rex Ingamells, of the Jindyworobaks, published a novel of traditional life in the Northern Territory, Aranda Boy, in 1952. Kylie Tennant wrote of the Torres Strait Islanders in All the Proud Tribesmen in 1959, and Nan Chauncy wrote of the attempted extinction of the Tasmanians in Tangara in 1960. But Patricia Wrightson has been most consistent of all in her use of Aboriginal characters and themes. In 1960 she attempted a more diificult task than her colleagues in writing The Rocks of Honey, dealing with characters not distanced by unfamiliarity or time. Instead, she wrote in %0 of a credible, contemporary Europeanized part- Aboriginal child among white children at a primary school on the north coast of N.S.W. and between 1973 and 1989 produced a series of fantasy novels that was to take her through many of the positions occupied in this century by writers wh draw upon indigenous material. Wrightson's Rocks of Honey and her fantasy novels since 1972 offer a useful and extended case study of an Australian author whose use of Aboriginal material has been scrupulous rather than exploitative, but remains problematical.