Quarrytown and Deane are separated physically by a road called Deane’s Line. They’re separated even further by history, prejudice, and laws that keep Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders at the bottom of the social and legal ladders. When we meet protagonist Odette Brown and her granddaughter, Sissy, at the beginning of The White Girl, by Tony Birch, they—and all people of Aboriginal heritage—are not citizens. They’re wards of the state, which means that the government and law enforcement can do almost anything with them as long as it’s “in their best interests.” Odette lives in fear of the day when the authorities decide that they need to take Sissy away from her.
Similar to actions by the governments in the United States and Canada, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were taken away to missions to be civilized or adopted out to white families. Today, these children are known as the Stolen Generations. Odette was one of these children, for a time, although she did get to live with her father for a while. Through her memories, we learn just a small bit of what it was like to be stripped not only of her family ties, but also her traditional culture and faith and language. When we meet her, Odette lives in Quarrytown in the house that her father built before his death. Sissy is the only member of her family she has left. It’s a spartan life, but they’re both doing just fine…until a new police officer shows up to take over from the soon-to-retire old sargeant, who doesn’t mind what anyone does as long as it doesn’t interfere with his drinking.
This new officer is determined to put everything to rights (as he defines them) as soon as he arrives in town, which includes a census of Aboriginal people, and definitely not going to wrangle the increasingly violent Kane family (they’re white). His interest in her little family sends Odette into a frenzy. It doesn’t help that Odette is also experiencing severe abdominal pain and the nearest hospital that can help is much too far away from Sissy for Odette’s comfort. The tension ratchets up as the new cop threatens to interfere with the small Brown family and blatantly ignore actual crimes happening in Deane and Quarrytown.
I was fascinated by Odette’s story—especially the parts of her heritage she was able to hold onto—and the stories of the other Aboriginal people she meets along her path. She is surrounded by injustice and, until she finds people inside the government who are willing to help, there’s very little she can do to change the status quo. When that happens, we’re left to wonder why it couldn’t be that simple (relatively) for everyone to claim their natural and legal rights.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.