by Maureen Helen
ABC Books. Australian, Adult Non-Fiction, Memoir. Paperback rrp $24.95
by Lee Fox
Lothian Children's Books. Young Adult, Australian. Paperback rrp $17.99
Guest Reviewer - Jo Burnell
Voices of those who have lived in Remote Indigenous Communities are rare. The names of the Indigenous who have died are not spoken by their People. It is forbidden. This makes books written by Aborigines themselves, almost non-existent. Those that do exist are not readily available in bookstores. The next best thing is voices of non-indigenous outsiders who have lived there. Even these books were hard to find until 2008.
Two books with the same name hit bookstores within months of each other. Their Publishers, genres and proposed readerships differed, but the essential content of the two books were the same.
In Other People’s Country by Lee Fox, Lola’s mum agrees to run the store in Wandana, a fictional Remote Indigenous Community. She takes Lola and her younger brother out of school to enjoy this life-changing experience. The three arrive without briefing about the inherent difficulties of life in the outback or unspoken community laws.
The practical challenges of living in an isolated community where the phones often go dead and fresh food isn’t always available, are mixed with more bewildering mysteries. People arrive on the doorstep to watch T.V. or ask for money, while disagreements in the community easily lead to violence. Lola’s little family fights home-sickness, while struggling to comprehend the ways of the Pitjantjatjarra people.
The difficult issue of racially-prejudiced white people working in positions of authority is explored, as is the alienation felt by half-caste Aborigines, caught between two worlds.
Lee Fox’s novel is deceptively simple, yet touches on many enigmas of remote outback living. She opens the door a crack, offers a digestible taste and then slams the door shut. I was left wanting more, despite the prickling heat, red dust up the nostrils and dog poo wherever I turned.
In the ABC books’ Other People’s Country, Maureen Helen shares a slice of her time as resident nurse in Jigalong. Fascinated by indigenous cultures, she accepts a job running a Health Clinic for around 300 people (plus visitors). She embarks on the journey, expecting to assist a fellow nurse. Instead, she is left to run the clinic single-handedly for weeks at a time. Describing herself as a coward, she attends to strangers in the middle of the night and faces gruesome medical emergencies.
Maureen’s personal safety is under threat at times. If someone dies at her hands, she may be subject to the Native Payback Laws. If she does not assist, she may still be subject to the same.
Despite this background of uncertainty, Maureen’s manner relaxes and so does her language, as she learns about the Martu people’s ways. It’s hard to be a community nurse, diagnosing illnesses and administering medications, when asking questions is not acceptable behaviour. She learns to walk the flimsy cultural tight-rope between two worlds. Maureen finds that Western solutions to Indigenous dilemmas often don’t work.
She shares her struggles and confusions in easy-to-read language. Her simple statements of fact strike more deeply than flowing, descriptive language ever could. The dialogues she records, bring life, colour and humour to a vibrant community whose customs are nothing like western ways. Whether right or wrong, the Martu apply justice unswervingly, challenging western thinking at every turn. Martu open-handed generosity outstrips that of the most dedicated Christian, while their inability to swerve from sometimes brutal Payback Laws defies belief.
Other People’s Country by Maureen Helen is a must read for anyone wanting to immerse themselves in the daily life of an Aboriginal tribe, while Lee Fox’s fictional novel introduces young teens to a similar world at a slightly censored, more palatable level.