Review Blog

Nov 22 2018

The boys from St Francis by Ashley Mallett

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Wakefield Press, 2018. ISBN 9781743055809
(Age: 14+) Recommended. Non-fiction. In 1945, six Alice Springs mothers parted with their sons, sending them off into the trusted hands of kindly Father Smith and his wife Isobel, to gain a better education in Adelaide. They were part of Father Smith's assimilation experiment: his belief that young Aboriginal children offered a high level of education would have a better chance in life. He wanted them to be proud of their Aboriginal heritage but also to succeed in the white world.
However need for greater financial support led Smith to be persuaded by the Australian Board of Missions to extend his original concept to allow for up to 50 'part-Aboriginal' boys to be included in his scheme - boys of the Stolen Generations, taken from their mothers. And while the boys remember Father Smith with affection, his dreams were gradually eroded by lack of funds and when he finally abandoned them, Smith was replaced by series of sadistic and cruel superintendents. That many of the boys were able to survive those times and go on to achieve in a variety of fields, is due more to their strength of character and determination not to be beaten, than to any care they received. They had to learn to fight to protect themselves; many found a path to respect and acceptance on the sports field. Wally Macarthur was a champion athlete, John Moriarty became the first man of Aboriginal descent to play soccer for Australia, Charlie Perkins played international soccer, many played rugby league or Australian Rules football.
They all faced racism - from being asked to leave the Balfours cake shop, to being denied opportunity to represent Australia in the Olympics, to being expected to sign a certificate of 'exemption' of Aboriginality to access the ordinary rights of other Australians. Charlie Perkins famously led the freedom bus ride visiting NSW country towns to focus attention on the blatant racism and segregation that was life for Aboriginal Australians. Yet despite all that they endured in those times, so many of the boys of St Francis went on to become exceptionally high achievers. You can read about Charlie Perkins, soccer star and activist; Bill Espie, policeman, awarded the Queen's Medal for bravery; Malcolm Cooper, first Aboriginal player to play for Port Adelaide in a grand final; John Moriarty, designer; Gordon Briscoe, history professor; Harold Thomas, creator of the Aboriginal flag; Vince Copley, Australian Rules footballer and AM in the Queen's Birthday 2014 Honours List; the list goes on. Their stories are ones of sadness and joy, loneliness and friendship, hard work, perseverance and warm-hearted humour.
Ashley Mallett's book highlights the amazing impact that the boys from St Francis had on Australian society. He would like to see their stories more widely known. A good start would be to have this book in every school library.
Helen Eddy

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