Purple Threads is a debut novel from Wiradjuri author Jeanine Leane, and it was winner of the 2011 David Unaipon award and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize in 2012. It’s an impressive debut.
I’d really like to see the ABC make a TV series out of this book. The episodic structure lends itself to a series, and although she’s not indigenous, Anne Phelan is the sort of actor I envisage playing the role of the irascible character of Aunty Boo. Aunty Boo lays down the law about the general worthlessness of men, religion and the wastefulness of farmers, and stays single for ninety-six years to prove that marriage is all for the worse. But she’s not the only strong-minded woman: although she’s in her fifties when the story starts, she’s still constantly being ‘jarred’ by Nan for swearing!
Shortly after finishing Purple Threads, I began reading my next book for Indigenous Literature Week: it’s called Bulibasha and it’s by Maori author Witi Ihimaera. What struck me almost immediately as I began reading it was the strong sense of family which permeates both novels. For these indigenous authors it is family which, for all its faults and idiosyncracies, provides a buffer against a hostile world. Both authors venture out into that hostile world through engaging with the mainstream education system, which – for all its faults and idiosyncracies – offers a wider range of choices and the possibility of empowerment for their people. But it’s family support that provides the strength to achieve against the odds.
Where Ihimaera writes about the tough world of rival Maori clans, Leane depicts a world of women. Her central character, named Sunshine because that’s what her birth brought into her family’s life, lives with Nan, her unmarried aunts, her younger sister Star, and only occasionally, her irresponsible mother Petal. Like Jesse’s mother Gwen in Tony Birch’s novel Blood, Petal is wilful, wild and selfish. But where Gwen had a history of falling for unsuitable men who flit in and out of the children’s lives, in Purple Threads it is Petal who flits in and out of her children’s lives. There is one disastrous attempt to live as a family with the children’s non-indigenous father Dinny but it is doomed from the start by the racist attitudes of the children’s grandmother.
Sometimes, being different gets Sunny down. At school she longs to fit in but is taunted because she lives out of town with ‘black witches’. Aunty Boo – who is a superb example of a self-educated woman – explains how
…’Women livin’ by themselves are always easy targets … For some reason it makes people suspicious to see a woman getting by on ‘er own. If a woman keeps a cat for company an’ makes up a few stories ta keep strangers away, next thing ya know everyone’s sayin’ she’s a witch. A witch-hunt is jus’ a way of huntin’ down those that are different an’ blamin’ ‘em for everything that’s gone wrong with the world’. (p108)
But Sunny is inconsolable, so Aunty Boo tries another story, one that refers to the purple border on the togas of Roman citizens:
She had a passion for quoting philosophers and historians, ever since she’d had to read them aloud to that old Mrs O’Brien [an old woman for whom Aunty Boo had been a domestic servant.]
‘Hey, Epictetus told a good story about being different.’ She paused and took a long whistling breath, She could switch from home talk to flash talk when she needed to. ‘When Epictetus’ mates told him he should be more like everyone else, he came back real smart an’ said to ‘em, ‘Because you consider yourself to be only one thread of those that are in a toga it is fitting that you take care how you should be like the rest of men, just as the thread has no design to be anything superior to other threads. But I wish to be purple, that small part which is bright and makes everything else graceful and beautiful. Why then do you tell me to make myself like many? And if I do, how shall I still be purple?’ (p108-9)
The women who are heroes of this story have had all kinds of grim experiences but the tone of the book is never accusatory. It’s an uplifting story of surviving and thriving against the odds and on your own terms. The morality preached to these women is a matter for droll humour, and their view of justice makes for an interesting twist in the story of the kindness shown to Milli the battered neighbour.
The book is set around the New South Wales regional town of Gundagai, well-known to Aussies as the home of the ‘Dog that Sits on the Tuckerbox’, a memorial to pioneers of the district. The Prince Alfred Bridge which spans the mighty Murrumbidgee River at Gundagai was once the longest bridge in Australia, and the Sheahan Bridge which replaced it in the 1970s is, at only 6m shorter than the Sydney Harbour Bridge, still an impressive experience as you make your way across the flood plain. These and other bridges, together with a variety of additional heritage sites make Gundagai a popular stopover between the cities of Melbourne and Sydney. These bridges exist because of Gundagai’s long history of disastrous floods.
However, though sketched with a light hand, Purple Threads shows that Gundagai has a Black History too, and that there ought to be a town memorial to a couple of Aboriginal heroes as well. Leane makes mention of the way the early settlers ignored the advice of the indigenous people and sited the town on the flood plain – so in time, the town was washed away twice. Intrigued, I checked this out on Wikipedia where I discovered that Yarri, Long Jimmy and Jacky-Jacky of the Wiradjeri people were indeed the heroes of these floods, rescuing with bark canoes the very people who had dispossessed them, in 1852.