This is the first of a series of posts about how the research for Secrets From The Dust relates to certain scenes in the novel. Each will highlight some of the information learned at the research stage, followed by a scene from the novel, which depicts how some of the information was used. Much of the research comes from work carried out at The Koori Centre, University of Sydney. In this post, I look at how some of the Koori (Aboriginal) children were taken from their families, and the scene which follows is the one where Margaret, the main character in the novel, is captured.

• Fair skinned babies were kept close to their mothers side for fear of being spirited away.
• The cunnichman (policeman) from the main town sometimes visited the settlement. Children would hide; adults would see and hear nothing.
• Every morning our people would crush charcoal and mix that with animal fat and smother that all over us, so that when the police came they could only see black children in the distance (the government were only interested in removing the mixed-raced children). And if the Aboriginal group was taken unawares, they would stuff us into flour bags and pretend we weren’t there. We were told not to sneeze. We knew if we sneezed and they knew that we were in there bundled up, we’d be taken off and away from the area.
• Mr Hill demanded that we three girls leave immediately with the police. The Aboriginal women were very angry.
• Mother… rushed out when she heard the car start up. My last memory of her for many years was her waving pathetically, as we waved back and called out goodbye to her, but we were too far away for her to hear us.
• Boys taken away trained as stockmen and other farm workers, girls as domestic servants.

The pang pang gooks all laughed as their several tiny fingers raced over the bushes, plucking at the wild riberries, which were fat with juice. The girl that they sometimes called Snake-woman-child darted in and out of the scrub with an athletic ease, eager to reach the biggest fruit ahead of the others, with whom she would share them afterwards anyway. They were eating more than they saved for the elders, who were dancing and singing up some spirit back at camp, and the luscious red juice ran down mouths, across cheeks and added to the days old stains that had already accumulated on their T-shirts and dresses.

A cloud of red dust billowed and raced towards the berry pickers, even though the sun was sitting high in the belly of its expansive sky and there was no hint of a breeze. They first noticed that the flock of chattering budgerigar, which had waited patiently on the wing for their chance at the scrub, had flown off, and when they stopped listening to their own rowdy voices, they heard the roar of the truck towards them, and turned to see it at the head of the dust cloud. The little ones ran off as the truck careered closer, remembering the warning of their parents. But the Snake-woman-child stood still, in a game of dare, as she knew the elders had mostly warned them about cunnichmen—who could do more than arrest drunks and thieves for breaking ‘white-man’s laws’—and what they had called ‘smart dressed types’, driving big black cars.

The truck stopped in front of her, and two fellas, farmer types, jumped out of either door. The men’s skins were only lightly touched by the sun, and when one of them lifted his acruba, his head was bald and his ears white, like the colour of a dead man’s bones. “G-day. You know where we can get some water love; our radiator is as dry as this here track?” He kicked at the ground, and the dust landed on his shiny new boots. He appeared to ignore her when she didn’t answer, then he lifted the bonnet of the truck and stuck his head inside.

The younger man, who had a few days growth on his chin, waggled a water bottle over his gaping mouth to indicate it was empty, but still she said nothing, and didn’t attempt to close the twelve feet between them. Her narrow nose and translucent blue eyes looking out from behind her rusted gum tree skin mesmerised him. He pulled himself away from her spell, went back inside the car and brought out some candy which he held at arm’s length whilst gingerly closing the gap between them. All of the remaining berry pickers took a few steps back, but Snake-woman-child stepped forward, holding out a handful of berries for the exchange. She could feel the eyes of fear from her kin heavily on her back, but knew her actions would be sung and danced up when the others tasted these new treats. They would sing that the Snake-woman-child truly had the spirit of her totem serpent, and she would hide any hint of individual pleasure and sing them up too, so that no one person could take the glory for all that had gone on that day, and no one person would be without recognition too, because that was the way it had always been.

The men spoke to each other in hushed tones, but the one with the candy kept his hunter’s eyes on her just the same. She remembered a few of the words she could hear, like slowly and pretty blue-eyed one, because it was less than two years since her mother had liberated her from the settlement school to go walkabout with their mob. This way she would be able to parent her in their mob’s ways, and she could be closer to where her husband might find work as a sheep shearer or cattleman, as he was always on the move.

“Grab the little mulatto bitch!” the bald headed man shouted when the one bearing gifts was within a foot of the exchange. It was then that she noticed the coarse sack hanging from his back, and he pulled it out and threw it in an arc, like a whip. It was over her head by the time she had turned and taken two lithe strides in the other direction. The other children scattered like frightened rabbits. The girl kicked, clawed and screamed more violently than a hare caught in a trap, but the two fellas were too strong. They tied a rope around the sack, and one of them carried the writhing bundle on his shoulder to the back of the truck. He threw her into its empty belly real hard, and she hit her head and passed out.

When the girl came to, it was dark, like the deep caves at Walara, and she sniffed the oily air in the truck through two holes in the sack. The vehicle lurched over uneven ground, and its inners rumbled more ferociously than angry thunder. The fear woke in her, and she pushed her arms against her bindings, but it made breathing the already stale, hot air burn her lungs. So she lay still and sang to herself, and each time the fear in her rose, she sang louder, so as to block out the screams that were leaping from her heart.
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Published on December 14, 2011 14:47 • 758 views • Tags: australian-fiction, general-fiction, george-hamilton, historical, literary-fiction

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