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Plains of Promise, by Alexis Wright.

June 14, 2012

Plains of Promise, by Alexis Wright University of Queensland Press (1997), Paperback, 304 pages.   (UQP Black Australian writers series)

A beautifully told story of Aborigines people living at a mission in mid-twentieth-century Australia.

Alexis Wright is an Aborigines author best known for her innovative, award-winning book, CarpentariaPlains of Promise is an earlier novel, more traditionally written and more accessible than Carpentaria.   It tells of Aborigines who lived in an isolated government-sponsored mission in the northern Gulf country in the 1950s.  Although damaged by the loss of their homelands, Wright tells of their efforts to hold on to traditions and connections even in hostile conditions.  Her story is about disorientation and rootlessness, but her characters are never merely victims.

The central figure of the first part of the book is Ivy, a small girl whose mother committed suicide when her daughter was taken away and placed in a dormitory.  With no family to support and protect her, Ivy is ridiculed by her peers and sexually abused,  Like Petula in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, she is a silent waif filled with self-hatred and “feeling the dirtiness of her brownness. Still a child herself when she is abused, Ivy gives ith at age 14 to a daughter whom she is never allowed to see. When Ivy is found beaten, she is sent away from the mission, haltingly discovers her identity, and then is left to wander in a society that has no place for her. Ivy’s daughter, Mary, was raised in a comfortable urban home, but when her adopted parents die, she starts looking for her own identity.  Giving up a good computer job, she joins an Aboriginal rights organization and has a daughter of her own.  Eventually she and her daughter return to the community where she was born, a place still filled with resentment and rejection.

Although the plot is important, so is the natural and super-natural setting of the story.  Wright regularly brings landscapes to life with her vivid phrases.

The land had turned into a brilliant carpet in bright shades of green moments after the rain finally stopped….The land rejoiced. The words of the world whistled by in an endless murmur of repeating rhythms.  A mother’s songs of quietness after the time of giving birth.

The book opens with crows in a “foreign” tree foretelling death and ends with a vision of a “disappearing lake” present only on rare occasions.  Various birds and animals move in and out of the story and ghosts appear to plague or help individuals.  This is not an imported “magical realism” but an integral part of the Australian people’s lives, apparent to those who are open to it.

Although the mission was supposed to teach Christianity, it was only partially and imperfectly accepted among Aborigines, as it never completely met their real needs. Wright describes the situation:

Self-doubts frothing like polluted water trapped in a crevice or ebb with nowhere to go.  The watertight Christian orthodoxy unable to suppress the multitude of disappointments that rage like a pack of wounded animals all through the night.  And they ask questions for nobody to answer.

Tribal elders continued to function unobserved by the official leaders of the mission.  They meet to address problems created by the dispersal of extended families into nuclear units and the loss of discipline it caused.  They sent one of their young men on traditional journeys to resolve problems at the mission.  And, those who heard the myriad voices coursing through the air, met to sort out which ones needed to be taken seriously.

But fundamentally, removal from their land had dislodged people’s connections with it and left them without direction.  As one woman said, “I could never give my children the law, the language of their mother’s country.”   Not all adaptations to life at the mission were positive.  Conflicts and senseless violence were wide-spread. Wright does even attempt to explain all the deaths and beatings.  While she does not condone such behavior, she does not assess blame, simply assuming such acts are not surprising for those who have lost their ways.

While men are important characters in Plains of Promise, some of the major and most positive characters are women.  (In Carpentaria, the opposite is true, except for a hint of female agency at the end.)  Although the Aboriginal women could be vicious, they also were capable of deep friendship and being supportive of each other.  In particular, older women bonded with each other and occasionally reach out to others in need.   Women often protest masculine failures of responsibility and loyalty.  Justifiably, they complain about the men’s frequent wife-beating and chasing of other women.   No one seems interested in trying to change this behavior, however.  The women only comment to each other that women should know better than to trust men.

White Australians appear rarely in the book, and Wright shows them little sympathy.  The director of the mission is a pompous, little tyrant, and his wife is misguided and pitiful.  A Chinese herbal doctor who married an Aborigines woman is more sympathetically treated.  But Wright’s real complaints are not aimed at individuals.  She stresses instead that too much has been lost with the Aborigines removal from their land.

No one was able to look after the land any more, not all the time, the way they used to in olden days. Life was so different now that the white man had taken the lot. It was like a war, an undeclared war.  A war with no name. And the Aboriginal man was put in their prison camps, like prisoners in the two world wars. But nobody called it a war: it was simply, the situation, that’s all. Protection. Assimilation, different words that amounted to annihilation.

The sections of the book that deal with Ivy’s life after she leaves the mission and joins with Mary’s life move away from the mission in place and time.  The legacy of the mission years shapes what happens in the rest of the book.  Being alone is a recurring theme.  A haunting legend of loss and continuity brings the story to its conclusion.

Lisa Hill of ANZLITLOV is putting together an indigenes authors reading in July. She recently asked the question of how such authors can creatively transform the experiences of their people.  Plains of Promise is an excellent book for considering  this point.  Wright is describing  situations similar to ones that inspired Rita Huggins, Sally Morgan, and Doris Kartinyeri to write their simple, powerful autobiographies.  The community where Huggins grew up is much like the one in Plains of Promise, but Wright treats her subjects with much more depth and complexity.  She tells a composite story which includes adult as well as children’s perspective ,and she permeates it with traditional spirituality and connection to the land.  Fiction also gives her freedom to explore the darker side of the Aboriginals themselves.

More importantly, Wright sensitively draws readers into the humanity of her characters, involving us in the universality of loss and rootlessness, however particular the form they take in the lives of Aborigines.  We can not change what has happened, but we can know about and respect of their lives.

I heartily recommend Plains of Promise to many readers.  It is a fine book, sensitively portraying people struggling to hold on to their identity in the face of loss.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. aartichapati permalink
    June 15, 2012 11:49 pm

    This sounds excellent. Have you ever read The Secret River by Kate Grenville? I love it, and it may be a more balanced view of the native and white Australian side than this book provides, if that’s what you’re looking for. But it is told more from a settlers’ point of view. It is written in very lyrical language, though, that I fell in love with. I’ll look for this one, too, though!

    • June 16, 2012 8:40 pm

      I loved Grenville’s lyricism and her excellent depicition of how Thornhill and Sal viewed their settlement and the Abrigines. I see her book as more about the relationship of blacks and whites, than Wright’s book which deals almost entirely with what happens to the Aborigines AFTER they lost their land. Also, I can see Thornhill’s dilemma about joining in the massacre and Sal’s fear, but I can’t condone the racisl hatred of the men who instigated it. I am less certain than Grenville seems to be that the only solution to the conflict over the land was killing off those who lived there. Maybe that’s because I spent years trying to show students that “manifest destiny” did not mean we in the USA had the right to destory Native Americans.

  2. June 18, 2012 5:43 am

    A very fine reivew. I think the missions also failed in ther duty of love when they neglected to reach out to Ivy. Sometimes, religion is not the opium of the oppresed, but rather a tool for oppresion. I am areading Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye at the moment and I dare say that your comparison of the two girs, Ivy and Pecola is very spot on. Thank you for sharing

    • June 18, 2012 4:18 pm

      Thanks. I love thinking of your reading The Bluest Eye. I have kept rereading it over the years since it came out and each time I discover new treasures. Morrison’s latest is waiting on my TBR shelf.

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  1. Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ Litlovers 2012 « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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