Review: Purple Threads by Jeanine Leane

This is a warm and funny novel about two Aboriginal sisters growing up near Gundagai in the 1960s.  Raised by their nan and aunties with limited connection to their free-spirited, ‘restless’ mother, the girls grow up in a loving environment under the older womens’ strict moral guidance.  These women have been through the protection era and have worked hard to establish their financial independence and create a better life for the girls.  They are strong women who love to read and take an interest in politics.  For a brief episode, the girls’ mother, Petal, returns and takes them to Queensland to live with her and their father, an Anglo-Australian man with whom she has an unstable relationship. The girls are exposed to racism and the questioning of their identity (their father defends Petal to his mother: “Looks to me like she’s less than half abo, and the kids you can hardly tell”), but they are not there long before Petal gets restless again and sends them back to their nan and aunties.

Based on Jeanine Leane’s own childhood, this novel is very easy to read and engaging.  It makes references to a range of issues/events which could be studied further within a classroom study.  Topics it touches upon include:

  • Christianity, in particular its role in Aboriginal lives (part of protectionism in the mission era and then adopted into many Aboriginal communities as an important part of their identity)
  • Environment and sustainability – drought, farming, Aboriginal knowledge of the land
  • Life in a small country town
  • Welfare/protection era
  • 1967 referendum
  • Older womens’ stories about the war, the Depression
  • Racism from the Anglo-Australian side of the family and at school

The dialogue is carefully crafted to show the structure/style of Aboriginal English, which we are encouraged to consider within the Australian Curriculum: “All students will develop an awareness and appreciation of, and respect for the literature of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples including storytelling traditions (oral narrative) as well as contemporary literature…Students will be taught that there are many languages and dialects spoken in Australia including Aboriginal English…” (Cross-curriculum priorities in English, )

As a Wiradjuri girl with family in Dubbo, I identified with the depiction of country life and the no-nonsense, straight-talking older women.  Reading it was like being back home on holiday, spending each afternoon hearing a new story over a pot of tea.  The story flows quickly and the different threads weave around each other effortlessly.

This would be great for Yr 9-12 students as part of an Australian Identity/Life stories unit and is nice and short at just over 150 pages. It won the 2010 David Unaipon Award for Indigenous Writing and is published by Penguin Books.

Helena Kadmos from Murdoch University has completed some excellent literary analysis of Leane’s work, as well as the work of Mununjali/Yugambeh author Ellen van Neerven:

Review: Riding the Black Cockatoo

Riding the Black Cockatoo by John Danalis is the true story of an Anglo-Australian man’s journey of reconciliation.  In adulthood, John began to question his family’s possession of an Aboriginal skull, and embarked on a journey to connect with the traditional owners and return the skull.  This non-fiction book (which reads like a novel) is marketed by Allen & Unwin as a book for young adults; however, it had a powerful effect on one of my good friends and colleagues, Viviane Gerardu, who believes all teachers should read it as part of their professional development.

In this ‘review’, I have posed a few questions to Viv about the book’s impact on her personally and how it has enhanced her understanding of teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives:

1. What impact has this book had on your attitude to teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in the classroom?

After reading the book I felt I had gained a better understanding and awareness of this perspective. I felt excited and comfortable with the knowledge I had gained and was looking forward to using pages from the text in my class room. I thought they would make excellent discussion triggers. Another outcome from reading the book is that we now have the Aboriginal Australia map in our class rooms and when we talk about place in Australia we refer to the map for its Aboriginal name. This came about because in the novel the author writes about the fact that he knew the names of more African and American tribal nations that Australian ones. I really connected with this statement and felt it was important that students learn tribal names and where they are on the Australian map.

2. In what ways has reading this book improved your knowledge and understanding of Indigenous people/issues in Australia?

The book has made me more aware of the intricacies of culture and the relationship of the land of Indigenous people. I had no idea how much protocol was involved in the repatriation process or a smoking ceremony. The book also gave me insight into a white person’s perception of the European invasion of the land and massacre of the Aboriginal population and its comparison with other countries. One comparison was with the Nazis. Another one revolved around street names and its link to famous English explorers “whose expeditions opened the country up to waves of settlers who in turn pushed the original inhabitants from their homelands” (p. 111).

3. How will the book inform your teaching of Indigenous issues?

I have had discussion with my colleagues on the value of the book for teachers and shared numerous pages that could be used in classrooms. We plan to incorporate some into our Australian Identity unit. When we discuss issues in Year 10, we will use pages from the text as a stimulus for class discussions and activities. For example Aboriginal etiquette and culture, about country, the rights of the dead, the Stolen generation, racism, limited Aboriginal voice, perception of the media – there are two great events in the book where the media portrays negative images of Aboriginal actions and how the white author is very upset about this and tries to correct the accounts – how children do not see coloured skin, stereotypes, etc.

4. Would the book be suitable for use in the classroom – if so, in what year/topic/context?

I would love to make this book compulsory reading for all teachers. It is insightful and full of information and knowledge a from a white person’s perspective, yet also includes Aboriginal voices. At one stage the author writes about his experiences on prac where a teacher is having her students draw famous explorers and the Australian bush. He suggests to her that he could do a lesson an Aboriginal art work in which she replies “Well, we aren’t covering any Indigenous units this year, so that wouldn’t really be appropriate.” (p. 221).

There are sections of the book that can be used for all levels but I would suggest that the book is more suitable for Years 11 and 12 as there are references to the author’s past that younger students would not understand. Also the last section is about the author’s problems with depression and I found this detracted from the central idea of the book.

For more information and teacher’s notes: