Uncategorized: 4 stars aboriginal Australia george hamilton historical fiction secrets from the dust
by J.A. Beard
Whether or not humanity will overcome ethnic and racial conflict remains to be seen. In many ways and in many countries, we’ve slowly improved things and relations even if perfection is still far off. It’s easy to decry violent behavior motivated by hatred, but many questionable behaviors in the past weren’t motivated by violent hatred.
In several countries the practice of taking children from an ethnic group judged to have an “unacceptable” culture was presented as an act of love and generosity toward the child. If the child could only learn the “proper” speech, the proper ways, the proper religion, so it was said, then they would be made better than their backwards. While certainly not the only example, such was the case in the recent past with some Aboriginal children in Australia.
George Hamilton’s Secrets From the Dust follows the life of a young half-Aboriginal girl, Margaret, who is taken from her family in the late sixties as part of government-sponsored policies to “improve” her. She is sent through various parts of a system that are at times seemingly equally devoted to devaluing her as person as it is to helping her.
Although thematic, political, and moral issues are obviously in the forefront of this story, it is, more than anything, a character-driven tale about a girl, and then a woman, trying to answer the fundamental question of personal identity. It’s a difficult enough thing for adolescents to figure out even without all the added racial assimilation baggage. Margaret’s struggle is presented with depth. She’s a bright young woman who isn’t driven by ideology or political struggle but the simple and fundamental desire to find a place she belongs. Though the story is firmly focused on Margaret but also allows an exploration of late-sixties and early seventies’ Australian racial politics.
A careful, detail-focused writing style highlights Margaret’s struggles and growth. In particular, the author does a good job of communicating her mental processes without being overwhelming. Admittedly, there were a few occasions where the story might have been served by a somewhat more swift pace, but overall, it had good flow. The shifts in emotion and motivation enhance character development well.
In this kind of story, it’d be far too easy, and perhaps even lazy, to present it as a simple struggle of evil racist white people disliking Margaret. While there are certainly more than a few characters in the story who disdain Margaret just for being born part-Aboriginal, the full-range of moral attitudes and relative kindness among both white and aboriginal characters provides a more realistic and nuanced exploration of racial themes.
Secrets From the Dust is a fascinating, if occasionally depressing, view into relatively recent Australian history.