Tangara, by Nan Chauncy, for Timeslip Tuesday

I have a classic for this week's Timeslip Tuesday--Tangara, by the great Australian author Nan Chauncy (1960).  I gave it five stars, but with a note of caution. 

This is the story of Lexie, a white girl in 1950s Tasmania, who travels back in time to the 19th century where she is befriended by Merrina, an aboriginal Tasmanian girl. A halcyon time ensues, with the white girl learning some of the language and culture of her new friend (rather magically, and Lexie takes it rather for granted that they can talk to each other), with much laughter and joy. It is lovely reading.  The Aboriginal culture is exoticized, yes, but through the eyes of a child for whom it is more fascinated interest than colonialist superiority; the Aboriginal culture is not less than or worse than the European culture. There's a bit when Lexie eats a live grub, and manages to appreciate the taste. The cross cultural exploration goes both ways--Merrina thinks Lexie smells awful, finds clothes, and in particular the pealing off of stockings, hilarious, and makes fun of Lexie's pathetic attempts to move silently through the bush.

But then there is a massacre, and Lexie is there when two white men gun down Merrina's people, who are trapped in the deep cleft in the earth that has been hiding them from the genocidal invaders.

Gradually, Merrina fades in Lexie's memory, and her life becomes one of school, girl guides, and ordinary friends. But Merrina is still there in the ravine, and when Lexie's older brother finds himself injured and alone in that very ravine, she saves his life, and Lexie sees her again, with much love and sadness mixed.

So the note of caution--this book was written in 1960. The everyday terminology used when discussing Aboriginal people is offensive to the modern reader. Off-setting this is that Lexie and her extended family find the past genocide appalling in no uncertain terms, at least once correct someone being blatantly disparaging about the Aboriginal Tasmanians, and strongly condemn past practices, like putting people's bones in museums. So though I was worried this would be so horrifyingly racist and patronizing I wouldn't be able to read it, I was in fact able to.

And I ended up being tremendously moved by it, to the point of tears. And then I went and read up on Tasmanian history, and learned lots (since I was starting basically at zero, this was not hard.).  One thing I learned was that Nan Chauncy, being a person of her time, so no reason not to doubt the myth of Aborignal extinction in Tasmania.

In conclusion, this is the sort of time travel I love best--with the time travel giving just huge emotional weight to the story because of the deep friendship between the two girls, while educating and entertaining and horrifying me along the way.  And as an added bonus, the landscape and its flora and fauna came alive to me as well.

Because it is, as I said above, problematic despite the author's good, and rather successful, intentions to be non-racist, even though it's what I'd classify as middle grade, it is best for a reader who is able to contextualize what was taken for granted, and not internalize it.  That being said, I would have loved it as a ten year old, for the same reasons I loved it today.


  1. Interesting. I know virtually nothing about Tasmania or the Aborigine there. This sounds like quite a book. Thanks for telling me about it.

  2. What an interesting title. It would be surprising to find a title from 1960 that WASN'T problematic in at least one way, no matter how well intentioned the author was. The likelihood of a modern tween finding this book is probably fairly small!

  3. Very interesting, thanks for bring this to our attention.


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