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Entitlement, by Jessica White.

February 23, 2013

Entitlement, by Jessica White.  Melbourne: Viking/Penguin, 2012.

AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS CHALLENGE

A powerful novel about how people deal with losses whether they are white Australians or Indigenous ones.

I was impressed with Jessica White’s summary of the reviews which dealt with diversity in Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2012.  When I commented that I hadn’t been able to find her book in the US, she graciously sent me a copy.  I read it and loved it.

At first the novel seems conventional. Cate McConville, a doctor in Sydney, returns home angry that her parents want to sell the rural land where she and her beloved brother Eliot had grown up.  The two had been unusually close, and, since his disappearance 8 years before, finding him had become her obsession.  Anger at her parents for his absence makes her return bitter.  In brief chapters, White describes others who are drawn into the conflict between Cate and her parents; other relatives, a man who finds Cate attractive, and Indigenous people living on the family land.  As the book progresses, Cate is flooded with memories of Eliot, her parents push her to agree to sell, and the tension in the novel builds.  I won’t say more because I don’t want to take away any the force of White’s plot and ending.

White is an author who shows that one does not have to belong to an group to write about them with sensitivity.  In this novel is she interweaves Indigenous characters with those who took and settled the land that had once belonged to them.  At first I wasn’t even aware that some of the characters were Indigenous, but gradually their stories immerge alongside those of Cate’s family.  There are no long, sad lists of their grievances, only short glimpses into their past and present.  The Indigenous people are not “Others,” but people who know the same losses and grief’s as the whites.   White gives all her characters dignity and allows them to express a variety of responses to events, even some who are loudly racists.  The diversity of White’s characters also includes a lesbian and the descendant of an Italian man who had worked the land as a “Prisoner of War” during World War II.

This is a very Australian novel, set in a rural landscape and sensitive to the power of the land as felt by both black and white characters.  For me, it is a striking example of the differences in the history of Indigenous people in Australia and in the United States.  White Australians were not more or less cruel, but our story goes back twice as long.  We have been killing and taking land from Native Americans since 1607, gradually pushing those who survived further west.  The taking of land and children is often forgotten because in the eastern states it happened hundreds of years ago. Our iconic “cowboys and Indians” actually apply to a brief period in the nineteenth century.  Few people today remember the worst atrocities.  More importantly, almost as soon as British settlers arrived at Jamestown, they started importing Africans as slaves.  These were the ones whose work produced American wealth and who are still usually the ones on the lowest rung of the social ladder. Black women, often wives and mothers, were the ones who most often worked as domestic servants in the homes of whites.  Race issues here traditionally relate to those who were enslaved, and not those who once possessed the land.  Hispanics, indigenous to the American southwest, also complicate the story. It is not that we were kinder to Indigenous people; just that the patterns of work, wealth, and power played out differently.

As an historian, I sometimes wonder about the value of understanding our own past and that of those around us.  Entitlement reminded me how we need to go back and correct our misconceptions before we can move ahead—as Cate is forced to do in this novel.

I strongly recommend this novel, to those who enjoy a good plot and interesting characters and to those who want to understand the commonalities of black and white Australians and the complexity of our own entitlement.

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