Stranger Among the Martu

Maureen Helen’s memoir, Other People’s Country: a woman’s journey from suburbia to life as a remote area nurse (ABC Books, 2008) tells the story of a woman who, in late middle age, leaves an empty nest in Perth to undertake service in the remote Western Australia settlement of Jigalong. Like Mary Ellen Jordan’s Balanda: my year in Arnhem Land (Allen & Unwin, 2005) and Paula Shaw’s Seven Seasons in Aurukun: my unforgettable time at a remote Aboriginal school (Allen & Unwin, 2009), Other People’s Countryrecords the culture shock the author experienced, the mixture of idealism and ignorance she brought to the job, and the victories and defeats that come with immersion in an alien and unsignposted culture.These must be extraordinarily difficult books to write, and in Helen’s case, she waited fifteen years before attempting to sort out in prose the adventure she experienced in 1990-91. What is remarkable is that the story is no less vivid for being recollected in tranquility; indeed her prose is brilliant, affecting, transparent. She has a genius for storytelling worthy of a novelist. Her pacing is impeccable, her construction of the narrative skillful. She knows how to use tiny details (for example, the small silver charm in the form of a snail that she wears around her neck) to thematically unite incidents across the pages of the book and across years of time. When she is tired and lonely, she speaks of her desire to spend an evening alone with a novel for solace, and it is clear that she has absorbed much of her craft that way. But the story rings true, and she has a generosity of spirit that extends both to herself and to the Martu people.

Helen spends roughly the first half of the book detailing the first few weeks in Jigalong, weeks she spent feeling frightened, abandoned, lacking in self-confidence, and almost always overwhelmed. Motivated by a yearning for adventure and a belief that she ought to put principles into practice, Helen had applied for a position at Coonanna, on the Nullarbor. The application was rejected, and months passed before she was unexpectedly offered work as a remote area nurse in Jigalong. Perhaps it was the surprise that led her to accept almost without reflection; it was certainly the abruptness of the decision that contributed to her bewilderment on arrival.

For once she is on the ground in Jigalong, she discovers that she has two days of orientation with the other nurse in the community before she is to be left alone to face the challenges of administering to the locals. The confusion and isolation increase when her colleague’s planned two-week absence stretches into six. But after those first two weeks, the demands of the job overwhelm almost everything else, even (almost) the sense of being overwhelmed. 

She manages to survive by enlisting help from every quarter. Joannie and PW, the Aboriginal nursing assistants, give her a grounding in the routines of the clinic. The telephone is a lifeline that connects her to medical advice in the nearest town of Newman and in Port Hedland, and sometimes to moral support from a friend back home in Perth. The Royal Flying Doctor Service comes through heroically time after time. 

Perhaps most crucially, she learns how to hold her balance. She overcomes both her shyness and her sense of duty to make friends with others in the community and to relax with them, shoring up reserves of strength. She begins to learn slowly from the example of the Martu themselves, coming to understand that her notions of schedules and appointed times, of “must” rather than “can” do not serve her as well as being-in-the-moment.

And so the tribulations of her early days give way to a growing sense of ease; she begins to behave adventurously rather than seeking adventure. She beings to negotiate risk into opportunity and to recognize, if only very slightly, that the Martu operate on a different scale of values. Surprisingly, she becomes comfortable with that recognition, even as it foregrounds her lack of understanding of those values. She can accept uncertainty and unknowing.

Unknowing still generates moments of terror, though. As she grows more relaxed, she wanders–literally–further afield from her own backyard. Pursuing photographs of an expanse of Sturt’s Desert Pea in bloom, she strays off the track. When she returns to find a group of women waiting for her at the clinic, she immediately recognizes that something is seriously wrong. She has strayed onto men’s country. Her horror at the revelation of this transgression is compounded of equal parts of fear of retribution and anger at the slipshod orientation that failed to put into her hands the extant written instructions that would have prevented her mistake.

And so while she has grown comfortable giving rides in the ambulance to the Martu going to or from Newman, and has stiffened her courage to take part in a nocturnal kangaroo-hunting expedition, a note of danger has been sounded. And it is danger that permeates, in many forms, the final quarter of the story Helen has to tell.

Men’s business is afoot, and in one way or another, it destabilizes the balance that Helen has begun to achieve. Her aides and closest friends among the Martu, Joannie and PW, must absent themselves from the clinic, compounding the isolation she experiences when Margaret, the other nurse, leaves again. 

The men’s business brings also more people in from the outstations. The very fact of these visitors’ mobility complicates life in the settlement, for suddenly there is grog coming in from Newman, and escalating violence in its wake. The visitors are a rougher lot in other ways, less used to whitefella ways, and so they stretch the fragile new accommodation to Martu ways that Helen has begun to develop.

In the end, though, it is a medical emergency that provides the occasion of Helen’s undoing, as a young mother presents at the clinic with a desperately iill new-born. Everything conspires to defeat Helen. A cyclone off the coast grounds the Flying Doctor. The baby’s acute dehydration means that mother and child cannot be left alone for the night in the clinic. Helen reluctantly and in exhaustion brings them home to her tiny living quarters, but cannot bring herself to grant a further intrusion on her sense of privacy by allowing the young woman to have a friend sleep with her that night. When Helen realizes in the morning the cruelty of that decision, she is deeply distressed.

And her distress only deepens when mother and child disappear as Helen showers. Eventually, with the aid of one of her Martu neighbors, she is able to locate the baby and call in the Flying Doctor. But the mother has left Jigalong for sorry business at another camp. Helen comes to appreciate the awful choice the mother had to make: bound to attend the funeral, she was forced to leave her baby behind, for taking the infant along would have led to its certain death. In another paradox, Helen’s moment of insight into the mother’s dilemma illuminates the paucity of her understanding of her clients’ lives and triggers her realization that it is time to leave Jigalong.

In a finely wrought epilogue, a mere three pages record an encounter with another young mother on a train in Perth a decade later in which Helen superbly knits up her story. This concluding parable of reconciliation once more demonstrates her storyteller’s art, dramatizing rather than moralizing, summing up her lessons learned in a toddler’s embrace.

Along the way, there are many other finely told tales. There are a couple of nights of terrifying violence full of shouts and spears played out over the soundtrack of screeching tires and the crash of bullbars against walls of community housing. There is an equally terrifying tale of two tiny girls, eighteen and thirty-six months old, caught in a web of the Welfare and Health Departments, foster homes in Newman, their mother’s alcoholism, and the Jigalong elders who hope to raise the girls Martu web. The shocking paralysis of so many good intentions totally at odds with each other is a theater of the absurd, with a tragic denouement.

If Helen tries to draw an explicit moral from her time at Jigalong, it is this:

It will take many decades and enormous goodwill on both side to work out what the partnership between the Martu people and the wider Australian society should look like, but a good start would be the recognition of, and respect for, the vibrant culture which underpins the lives of the people, and an attempt at dialogue that seeks to understand the Martu viewpoint (p. 243).

Other People’s Country is a story suffused with courage and pity and perhaps even desperation. It is a most welcome addition to the literature that describes the ongoing contact and adjustment between black and white in remote Australia.

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