Review Blog

Oct 06 2011

Nanberry: Black Brother White by Jackie French

cover image

Angus and Robertson, 2011. ISBN: 978 0 7322 9022 1.
Highly recommended. From a blissful childhood, where food is plentiful and family life happy and filled with ease, Nanberry's life changes with the arrival of 'ghost canoes' and white people. With them come white people's diseases, to which the aboriginal communities have no immunity and the young boy sees his immediate family struck down with smallpox. When the Governor and Surgeon White go to investigate the deaths, Nanberry is discovered and taken to the hospital where he is cared for and fed. As the child is returned to health, and shows an aptitude to quickly learn English words and ways, the Surgeon decides to adopt him. He takes the boy home where his maid is expected to care for both Nanberry and the o'possum which the Doctor has also found. This is the beginning of a strange little family, which grows and changes over time, and the life of each of the characters as they straddle the boundaries between the worlds of the aboriginals, convicts and the English free settlers.
French is a prolific author, whose novels are not only easily devoured but quality literature, often challenging the reader to think more deeply on her chosen topics. This title is no exception. The killings of the aboriginal people, the relationships between Masters and servants, English and aboriginals, the inhumane treatment of the convicts onboard the ships to Australia and the treatment (or mistreatment) of the land are amongst the topics covered without being sanitised. Themes of family, loyalty, honour and the value of hard work are all included, with the title being based on the concept of belonging. Nanberry reflects on changes he notes in himself as he muses, 'Black brother. White father.' Based on actual characters of the time, one can well believe this dilemma of being 'stranded between two cultures and at times earning contempt from both' (author's notes) as being true not only of Bennelong but also of Nanberry.
This title would work well as a comparative text for secondary students, alongside Geraldine Brooks' Caleb's Crossing.
Jo Schenkel

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