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Purple Threads, by Jeanine Leane.

August 15, 2013

Purple Threads, by Jeanine Leane. University of Queensland Press (2012), Paperback, 156 pages



A delightful novel about childhood in a loving Indigenous family in the Gundagai region of New South Wales.

Sunshine, or Sunny as she is called, is the bright, inquisitive girl, who narrates this collection of episodes from her childhood.  She and her sister, Star, are being raised by her grandmother and two aunts, wonderful self-sufficient women who love to tell stories.  In many ways, Sunny’s account could be that of any children anywhere, but in fact, their experiences are shaped by the fact that her family are Indigenous people, living in an area of white farmers in Australia.  They are “different” as Sunny discovers and laments, but the aunts point out that difference is a good thing like purple, or black, threads in white cloth.

Jeanine Leane is herself a Wiradjuri woman from south-western New South Wales, and some elements of her book are autobiographical.  After earning her Ph.D., she went on to become an expert on Indigenous writing and on the representation of Indigenous people in the writing of white Australians.  She has taught at the Australian National University and is currently an Indigenous Research Fellow at the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Studies.  She is also a published poet.

Purple Threads takes readers inside the experiences of Indigenous people and presents the world as they see it.  Although non-Indigenous characters are present, the crux of the stories is not about them, and they are seldom shown in a positive light.  The ability of Sunny and her family to laugh at what outsiders say and do softens criticism of them.  For example the minister is funny when the children are critical of his picture of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, surrounded by a herd of sheep that does not include the necessary rams.  When Sunny’s mother takes the children to live temporarily with her partner’s parents, we are caught between laughter and tears at his mother’s racist comments.

Whatever stereotypes exist about Indigenous people caught in an endless circle of poverty and inadequate parenting are challenged in this book.  Although Sunny’s family is not affluent, they have found ways to live comfortably, even if they had to use trickery to hold on to their small piece of land.  They are educated, lovers of Bronte and Roman History.  Even though the grandmother, Nan, has given up on reading, she emphatically still thinks.  Commitment to family is a major value for them.  Sunny’s teacher may find their family structure and habits to be outside what she considers acceptable, but the children thrive on the attention and love they receive.  And they are, in turn, learning to be self-sufficient women themselves.

The characters in the book are remarkable, especially the women raising Sunny and Star.  The grandmother retains her authority over the aunts, criticizing their behavior despite their age.  Auntie Bubby is the incurable romantic.  My favorite was Auntie Boo, a sharp and practical individual, full of caustic comments.  In her view, men were unnecessary bothers.  As she tells Sunny when the two of them are away from the others,

Man are like snakes on legs, girl….You can’t trust them!  They are all cold-blooded.  And ya can’t bloody train them either….All this world needs, girl, is women an’ dogs an’ kids.  A good dog, girl, is worth all the men in the world rolled up in one.

Whatever unconventionalities in their home life, the three women made clear that the girls had to dress up and behave in public, especially when they went to the required weekly church service.  The ultimate threat was that if they didn’t, they would be taken away.

Make sure ya scrub ya neck, youse kids, or I’ll hafta do it for ya. An’ wash ya hair an’ scrub ya nails too. Can’t h’ve ya goin’ out in public looking like lookin’ like nobody owns ya or the welfare will take ya.

Although the threat of removing Indigenous children permanently from their homes had ended by the time of the book, memories of the practice lived on.  In fact, when the girls were found at their grandmother’s, they were forced to start attending school.

In addition to her fine characterizations, Leane provides a detailed account of the land around Gundagai and the weather that moved through the region.

In winter the shadows hit the valley from all directions and crept long and dim across the paddocks to our house.  The cold air drove us inside early and kept us there through the long, wild nights. Sometimes the howling gales blew in from the south and shook the flimsy tin on our roof like paper, and our house shifted and groaned so much that the tin mugs and plates on the dresser jangled and clanged as the women’s voices rose and fell.

The aunts also tell the stories of the land.  They remembered correctly that local Indigenous people had warned settlers not to build on the floodplain of the Murrumbidgee River. Finally when the predicted floods came, they painstakingly rescued the settlers in their canoes. (The bridge on the cover is the one eventually built over the dangerous floodplain.)

 Purple Threads is a fine, very assessable book.  Readers of all ages can identify with its universals qualities while gaining a new perspective on what it means to be an Indigenous person in Australia.  I recommend it highly all readers.

Thanks to Sue Terry for making sure I was able to read this book.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 15, 2013 11:37 pm

    I’m glad you enjoyed the book Marilyn … Leane does a great job of describing the characters and their relationships doesn’t she? Gundagai is only a couple of hours from were I live … and I know that bridge well but in all the times I drove there (mostly in the 1970s) I knew nothing about the indigenous people and the flood. Sad, eh?

  2. October 2, 2013 7:44 am

    Sounds like a fine book. I like women who are very self sufficient. I was brought up by a single mother who was and is still very self sufficient. I also grew up on caustic remarks from my mom and grandma. I’m afraid even now, I get scolded by my mom 🙂

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