Review Blog

Dec 18 2015

Sister heart by Sally Morgan

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Fremantle Press, 2015. ISBN 9781925163131
Teachers and librarians know that reluctant and struggling readers will sometimes be tempted by verse novels which have a rhythm and structure and typically present more limited text on an open page. I hasten to emphasise that this verse novel will have a broad, general readership, however I see it having value in engaging students who might resist prose.
Anyone who reads this book will be moved to empathise with and understand the trauma felt by a young Indigenous girl whom we come to know as Anne, when she is forcibly removed from her family and community to be transported to a "Government place". The institution she finds herself in is run more like a prison than a care facility and appears to exist only to ensure that the children do not have access to their families before they are deemed old enough to work for Europeans.
The conditions portrayed are harsh and the treatment by some staff members is cruel, revealing an attitude that the Aboriginal children were a problem, were second class and must be detained at the least cost and with the minimum concern for their welfare.
The notion of "Sisterhood" is a critical element within the narrative. Anne misses her family desperately and finds solace in the company of Janey who adopts her much like a sister, immediately offering advice, friendship and comfort with no expectation of anything in return. Janey's highly developed sense of responsibility to ensure the welfare of her own brother Tim, by constantly looking out for him and lovingly protecting him, underscores her role as a sister. Nancy, an older girl, soon to be sent to employment, gruffly guides the younger children in the ways of the facility, much like an older sister whose mild annoyance with her siblings belies her love for them. Importantly, Anne also has much to contribute as a sister as the story develops.
Family and kinship ties are shown to be enormously powerful within this story and we are shown that despite having wildly different geographical origins, a common background and a shared need to survive forges different kinds of sibling relationships.
Dates and specific locations are absent from this narrative and the real names given to Anne and Janey by their families are never revealed. The sisterly trust held by Anne and Janey enables them to eventually share their "secret names" but this is too precious to be revealed in the text.
All we know is that Anne is forcibly removed and taken by ship to the "Government place" where the children are known as North Westerners or South Westerners. The fact that Anne suffers terribly from the cold implies that she was transported from the North of Western Australia to the South where Winters would have been much colder.
Avoiding mentioning particular dates and times appears to me to be highlighting that this was the common experience for several generations in many places throughout Australia. However, having recognised this, I feel that an explanatory foreword may have been useful for younger readers who might benefit from learning about the Stolen Generation history.
Rob Welsh

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