Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss

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The opening chapters of this novel are based on true events; the foolhardy white settlement of the Marrambidya flood plains and the devastating Gundagai floods of 1852. Two heroic Aboriginal men, Yarri and Jacky Jacky, paddled their canoes through the night to save people stranded on roofs and clinging to trees.

Anita Heiss gives us the fictional story of Wagadhaany, Yarri’s teenage daughter, rescued on that night along with the two Bradley brothers she works for – James and David. As the Bradley’s domestic servant, her life is tied to them, and when James and his new wife Louisa set out to create their future at Wagga Wagga she has no choice but to go with them leaving behind all the family and country she loves so dearly.

As a young black woman, Wagadhaany could be easy prey for the lecherous advances of David, the other brother, but this situation, though an only too common experience for young Aboriginal women, is thankfully not the focus of Heiss’s story, so much as the tenuous relationship between Wagadhaany and Louisa. Louisa is a lonely person, a Quaker, with humanitarian ideals, who aspires to befriend and save Aboriginal people. Of course there is a patronising element to her attitude, naive and good intentioned as she may be. Heiss explores the idea of whether it is really possible to have a friendship between two people from such different backgrounds and unequal situations; recalling for me the theme of Wilkinson’s When the apricots bloom about friendship between a foreigner and women trapped in Iraq. Wagadhaany is just as trapped. Her life is bound by the white man’s laws. She has no freedom.

Heiss’s novel beautifully describes the country, family and stories that mean so much to Wagadhaany, weaving in Wiradyuri language and beliefs. There is a lot of sadness in Wagadhaany’s life; and though there is a gentle love story, we are left with a very strong sense of the suffering and loss.

Themes: Wiradyuri, Aboriginal history, Dispossession, Sorrow, Loss, Friendship.

Helen Eddy