Crow Country (Allen & Unwin, 2012), Australian author Kate Constable has written a brave and heartfelt story that draws on the Aboriginal heritage of Place and Story, and that addresses racism (past and present) head on. It is only partly successful.
White, city-girl Sadie had no desire to move to the country town where her mother grew up, and, once there, has no desire to make connections to the land and the people living there. But beneath the mud of a dried-out reservoir, she finds carved stones--part of a story as old as the land, Crow Country, place of the Dja Dja Wurrung. Crow comes to her, leading her back in time, making her part of a tragedy in which her own family was complicit. In brief passages of time, Sadie takes the place of another girl, unwilling party to the cover up of the brutal murder of Jimmy Raven, an Aboriginal man. The secret burial of Jimmy Raven involved a wrong done not just to him, but to his kin.
Meanwhile, in the present, Sadie finds herself stuck being companionable with Walter, nephew of her mother's old flame David, himself Aboriginal. And Walter's toughness (he's the one who advocates trespassing, who uses violence) gives Sadie both the impetus she needs to solve the mystery of Jimmy Raven in the present, and the connection to the Aboriginal elder who will set things right.
On the plus side, the time travel part of the book is extremely gripping. Because Sadie already has a place that's she's filling back in the past, the difficult bits of being in another time aren't the point--she's there to observe three men who fought together in World War I, and how the bond they formed then is overwhelmed by the racism and economic disparities back in Australia. I found this fascinating. And although it didn't break any new ground, I also was reasonably happy to read about Sadie's life ordinary life in the present--trying to fit in to a new a community, dealing her mother's rekindled relationship with David, and her own attraction to privileged boy Lachie.
I'm always in favor of books that address racism head on, as Kate Constable does, and I appreciated that she is careful and respectful in
her presentation of Aboriginal beliefs, acknowledged in the
forward written by Elder Gary Murray of the Dja Dja Wurrung Yung Balug Clan.
But unfortunately, I was never able to be entirely comfortable with Sadie in her role of Crow's chosen one. She is a white girl setting right a past wrong done to Aboriginal people, assisted by an Aboriginal boy who brings danger and violence to the quest. In fairness, Sadie's family had a large part in things going wrong, and so, at one level, I'm fine with her having to take steps to set things right. But I'm not comfortable with the white girl having so much more positive a role than the Aboriginal boy. All this came to a head for me when Sadie says to an Aboriginal Elder--"you can trust me" (page 179).
This is a flash point phrase for me, because I used it myself once, in a very well meaning but utterly naive way, when I was new to my job as an archaeologist working with the federally recognized tribe of my state. I will never forget the well-deserved dressing down I got from the Tribal Preservation Officer to whom I said it. The gist of it was that "trust" is an incredibly loaded word, fraught with colonialist oppression and power dynamics, and that the Tribe is able to make decisions about its own cultural patrimony without having to place any trust whatsoever in a naive white girl.
As long as I was able to keep my mind in sync with Sadie's self-centered adolescent persona, I was able to turn the pages briskly, finding the mystery and the mythology and (to a lesser extent) the personal dynamics gripping, as a thinker I was troubled...and it's one of those books where the more you start thinking, the harder it is stop. It was particularly troubling that the wrong being set right wasn't about bringing justice to Jimmy Raven as an individual who was murdered and secretly buried. If you want to know more about the troubling-ness of this story, I can't say it any better than Ana does over at The Book Smugglers
However, many have found merit in the book--Crow Country was the 2012 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year Award – Younger Readers, and was shortlisted for the 2012 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature Children’s literature award as well as the 2012 WA Premier’s Literary Award.