Shadow Lines, by Stephen Kinnane, is an important book that puts a human face on Australia’s shabby story of the Stolen Generations, but – after so recently reading indigenous author Kim Scott’s uplifting That Deadman Dance, I found it hard going at times.
You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by this story of Kinnane’s grandmother Jessie Argyle who was taken from her family in 1905; her struggle to be with the man she loved, Kinnane’s grandfather Edward Smith who migrated here as a young man; and Kinnane’s own journey of discovery as he reclaims his roots. Understandably, bitterness creeps into Kinnane’s story sometimes, and perhaps this is what made me feel uncomfortable.
Kinnane has resurrected Jessie’s movements from the exhaustive files kept by the infamous A. O. Neville who orchestrated the removal policy but much of what he writes is a work of empathetic imagination because no one bothered to document what little Jessie felt or thought. The image Kinnane paints of the child walking barefoot across the vast Kimberley to a precarious future is heart-rending. She was accompanied by Aboriginal prisoners in chains, another small child, and stony-hearted police. What she must have thought and feared is impossible to comprehend, and her grief-stricken mother left behind can have had no consolation for her loss, not least because the same cruelty had been imposed on others of her kin.
The story of Kinnane’s grandfather, Edward Smith, who emigrated to Australia in 1909 is somewhat less engaging, and much of the early part of it reads like any other family history (not my favourite genre, as my readers know). However, their heroic struggle to be together, in the face of almost insurmountable bureaucratic difficulties and the inherently racist reaction to a ‘mixed marriage’ is intriguing, not least because it’s not really clear why in the end permission was given for them to marry.
The policy of forcibly removing children from their families under the pretext of ‘civilising’ them in institutions that fitted the children only for unskilled labour was in place for decades. The facts of this stain on our country’s history are so well-known now that there is no need to repeat them here, but it is still distressing to read about the human misery inflicted by inhumane policies claimed to be in the ‘best interests’ of our indigenous people. Like most Australians, I felt immensely relieved by Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations, and I look forward to further steps along the road to Reconciliation, starting with acknowledgement in our Constitution of indigenous occupation before European Settlement in 1788.
The astonishing aspect of this story is the strong sense of community that has survived amongst the Aboriginal people, and their resilience. Life experiences that would have crushed many others, have served to strengthen their resolve and determination to survive and thrive.
Guy Salvidge (not to be confused with Guy Savage of Savidge Reads) has written a thoughtful review here, and Kate at Novel Travails thought that it was ‘Kinnane’s way of doing justice to his ancestors, a justice that is forceful, elegant and upsetting‘.
© Lisa Hill
Author: Stephen Kinnane
Title: Shadow Lines (click the link to purchase at Fishpond)
Publisher: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2003 (click the link to buy from the publisher)
Source: Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Arts Centre Press.