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:

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