I’ve been continuing to work my way through the The Macquarie Pen Anthology of Aboriginal Literature at a slow pace, and am continually delighted by what I’m finding there. The early emphasis on documentary history has given way, towards the middle of the twentieth century, to hefty doses of “literature” in the sense of fiction, poetry, and drama. I continue, also, to be amazed by the variety of styles, genres and subgenres, and the mixture of the sweet and the useful found in these literary explorations.
While I was reading Gillian Cowlishaw’s The City’s Outback, I came to an excerpt from a novel in the Anthology that resonated powerfully with the stories of removal and family disruption Cowlishaw was reproducing, and decided to pursue the novel and read it in its entirety. The work in question was Monica Clare’s Karobran: the story of an Aboriginal girl, originally published in 1978, a few years after the author’s death, and reprinted in 2008 by the Alternative Publishing Cooperative Limited.
Clare was born in 1924 to an Aboriginal father and an English mother, and was sent with her younger brother from her home country in Queensland to Sydney at the age of six following her mother’s death. The children spent a short but apparently idyllic time on a farm near Spencer in New South Wales before being separated from one another and sent to government homes. Later in life Clare became active in Aboriginal politics, working especially hard to improve housing conditions and with her husband, Les Clare, in Labor circles.
Karobran was unfinished at the time of Clare’s death in 1973. She had brought the manuscript to the offices of FCAATSI, where a team of sympathetic editors later picked it and made final revisions. Like many first novels, Karobran is heavily autobiographical and draws on the first half of the author’s life, from childhood through early adult independence. It is narrated in the third person, but always strictly from the point of view of Isabelle, who is seven years old in the opening chapter. The story begins the day of her mother’s death and the confusion and fear she experiences. This incident sets up not only the pervasive sense of loss that will haunt Isabelle’s life throughout the novel, but also her fierce loyalty to the remnants of her family, her father Dave, and her younger brother Morris.
It also adumbrates the plight of workers, particularly Aboriginal workers, during the years of the Great Depression as Dave sets off with the children in search of work. In the later chapters of the novel, when she is separated from first her father and later her brother, the sense of community that Isabelle finds in the struggles of working folk will sustain her and drive her forward in life, just as the hope that she can connect again with her family does.
Isabelle finds another early and tantalizing sense of community when the family is briefly taken in to the hospitable circle of an Aboriginal camp. But the stay there is brief as Dave sets off again looking for work. Sadly, their journey takes them next into the orbit of Tom Wall, a cruel, racist drunkard. Mrs Wall is barely able to defend herself, let alone the children, and at the end of this episode, the Welfare comes to take the children away as Dave goes off in search of a livelihood once more.
What follows next is the most idyllic chapter of the young girl’s life (and the section of the book that is excerpted in the Anthology). Isabelle and Morris are sent to live with the Manbury’s on a farm in New South Wales, and these kindly people provide the children not just a home, but a sense of connection to a countryside that stays with Isabelle long after the state intervenes once again and removes the children to an institutional home.
Although brother and sister maintain a loose connection in the city, the bond between them attenuates too. Isabelle leaves the home and finds work; she also finds a sympathetic white man named Bill who leads her into an awareness of larger issues of social justice, and more importantly, finally leads her out west to be reunited with members of a displaced Aboriginal community. There she finally achieves a spiritual reconnection with her father’s people. She finds a measure of peace, although it is one that is permanently tinged with the unforgettable loss of her father and brother.
Karobran is a remarkable novel. Less than one hundred pages long, told in simple, clear prose, it nonetheless illuminates history in remarkable ways. It is a story of removal and loss, of the Stolen Generation embodied in a single life. It is likewise a novel of a distinct social consciousness, the story of labor in the Depression, of rural New South Wales, of the removal of whole communities from the country that had sustained them for generations. With its focused point of view, it never becomes didactic. It is a journey of discovery and wonder as much as it is a tale of loss told without a trace of self-pity. Isabelle, in her quiet and understated way, is one of the great heroines of Australian literature.