Book reviews

Legacies of White Australia: Race, Culture and Nation, Laksiri Jayasuriya, David Walker and Jan Gothard (eds). University of Western Australia Press, isbn 1876 26896 4, rrp $38.95

The collected essays in this book came out of a symposium that was held during the centenary year of Federation. This also marked 100 years since the Immigration Restriction Act (1901) was passed and the birth of the White Australia Policy. These essayists attempt to trace the political, social and moral legacies of the infamous policy. What emerges is a picture of certain cultural trends that arose from the earliest period of European settlement and have continued to influence Australian political life. David Walker describes these as ‘invasion narratives’: the fear some white people have of being overrun by dark-skinned foreigners. Ien Ang argues that Australians have a profound ‘spatial anxiety’: there is not enough space for all these foreigners who may endanger the great Aussie dream of the quarter-acre block.

Such narratives and such anxiety have contributed to the inhumane detention policy we now have. Robert Manne understands the Howard government’s refusal to allow the Tampa ‘to unload its refugees on Australian soil as represent[ing] a true turning point in the history of Australia’. He speaks of ‘a kind of respectable xenophobia’ that has emerged to make incarcerating asylum seekers seem a legitimate and humanitarian part of refugee policy. Across the essays, there is a strong emphasis on putting our current immigration and asylum seeker policies into a global geopolitical framework. This excellent book makes it clear that the spectre of White Australia still haunts us.

Kirsty Sangster

The Uniting Church in Australia: The first 25 years, William W. Emilsen and Susan Emilsen
(eds). Circa, 2003. isbn 0 958 09382 2, rrp $49.95

At the 1997 Assembly of the Uniting Church, Emilsen watched and wondered at the way members of different synods reacted to the discussion of sexuality. In response, this history examines the Uniting Church’s first 25 years state by state.

The various chapter authors include historians ranging from a postgraduate student to an emeritus professor, a sociologist and a journalist. So the chapters are in a variety of styles: academic, participatory, and in at least one case, there is a suspicion that the author is settling scores.
The sections on New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia all provide background to the way the synods have reacted to the 2003 Assembly decision on sexuality. The one on Victoria, however, focuses on the minority neo-evangelical view, and gives few explanations as to why the majority of members in Victoria have taken the Assembly decision in their stride.

The book tells of conflict experienced and survived. The discussion of sexuality is only the most recent of the debates that have challenged the church—debates over politics, abortion, infant baptism, and the ordination of women. The Uniting Church has survived all these, and this history suggests that it will survive the sexuality debate as well.

Avril Hannah-Jones

Landscapes of Memory: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, Ruth Kluger. Bloomsbury, 2003. isbn 0 747 56005 6, rrp $35.00

As a starving and near-naked 12-year-old, Ruth Kluger stood before a tall soldier and lied about her age in the hope that she would be let loose from Auschwitz and selected for another labour camp. She writes of the soldier: ‘Later I saw the selector’s image in Kafka’s door keeper, who won’t grant a man entrance to his own space and light.’ This book makes it clear that the Holocaust deprives even those who survive it of any space and any light. Kluger remains the child standing in a roll-call of the dead.

The narrative is fragmented. Past, present and future all become tangled up together as if she is in dialogue with all her selves at once: pre-Holocaust child, concentration camp dweller, retired literature professor. Her life as an academic runs together with the shooting of her brother in Riga, her experiences in the camps, and the disappearance of her father. In her pitiless use of language she refuses to sanctify the space of Auschwitz or the memory of all those who were murdered. She is unforgiving of her dead relatives, insisting on her right not to forget their petty cruelties towards her before the war. Nor does she forgive her mother whom she perceives as paranoid and selfish despite having saved her daughter from the gas chambers. She tells it how it is for her—child survivor—without adornment. She dares the reader to feel any ‘pity’ for her. This is essential reading.

Kirsty Sangster


A girl, a smock and a simple plan, Chris Daffey.
Penguin, 2003. isbn 0 14028 961 5, rrp $22.95

Chris Daffey has stolen my childhood. This is the conclusion I reached after reading A girl, a smock and a simple plan. He doesn’t mention learning maths by Cuisinaire and compulsory marching for all students (an episode which has left me with a loathing of brass bands), but otherwise, this too is my experience of Grade Six. If you are not convinced that schooldays are indeed the best of our lives, relive them in these pages and believe.

Part novel, part autobiography, A girl, a smock and a simple plan is the story of a normal boy who falls in love with a normal girl and goes to abnormal lengths to win her affections. ‘The Plan’ has all the cunning of a Blackadder plot and about as much chance of success. We follow our hero through his senior primary year as he walks the fine line between childhood and the terror that follows.

Daffey’s writing is sharp and his characters well observed. We enjoy the company of the best friends (the sporting hero and the equally lovable and infuriating nerd), the family and the story’s standout, Pop. Daffey seamlessly stitches together the minutiae of life as an 11-year-old: falling in love, cricket, Holden cars, avoiding the school hit man and Star Wars. If you were ever baffled by the logic of boys at primary school, this book solves the mystery.

Daffey is a lawyer-turned-writer and this is his first book.

Marcelle Mogg

 

 

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