Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 2, 2012

Purple Threads, by Jeanine Leane #BookReview

Indigenous readers please be aware that this page and one of the comments below contains the names of deceased persons.

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.

Source: Wikipedia Commons

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.

Source: Wikipedia Commons

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.

Highly recommended.

Anita Heiss reviewed Purple Threads on her blog too, and so did Karenlee Thompson.

Author: Jeanine Leane
Title: Purple Threads
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press) 2011
ISBN: 9780702238956
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP.

Fishpond: Purple Threads
Or direct from UQP


  1. Hi Lisa, I’ll have to read this one because my great (or maybe great-great) grandfather was one of those rescued by the Wiradjuri in the 1852 flood! John

    • Wow, that’s an interesting snippet of family history, John!

    • How exciting. Do you have much information passed down from your great (or great-great) grandfather, John? These sorts of connections constantly amaze me.

      • It is exciting, Karen. I’ve asked my folks, but there’s not a whole lot known about it, though I suspect some distant relative knows more. I’ve been planning on researching it when I can get some spare time. Either that, or, when I become famous, I can have a ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ episode made that finds out the truth! ;) But I’m sure there’s a fabulous story there waiting to be told. John

  2. This does sound interesting :) There’s a link with ‘Legacy’ in what you’ve written, especially in the idea of strong women. I get the feeling that Australian Indigenous writing has a lot to say about strong women and weak men…

    • I think maybe I should let any indigenous readers following this conversation take up this issue of gender relations, Tony, except to comment that although there are high profile men like Noel Pearson and Patrick Dodson in the media, it is quite striking how often indigenous leaders these days are women. Role models for the rest of us!

  3. Ah, will come back and read this when I’ve done my review … Which may be tomorrow but will probably be Wednesday as I’m working tomorrow. I’ve only 20 pages to go and am enjoying it.

  4. Over the weekend I read one of the Indigenous books I had set myself to read. It was the memoir, Skin Painting by Elizabeth Hodgson. And like Purple Thread, it is also a winner of the David Unaipon Award. Written in poetry verse, I found it to be a very powerful read. Elizabeth is taken from her family as a young child and placed into an institution and foster care. Beautiful and sad story.


  5. it sounds like it would make a fine series Lisa I hope to have my book for the wek later in the week ,all the best stu

  6. Purple Threads is a great book. My family (Sam and Maryanne True), survived the 1852 Gundagai Flood but we had no family story of them being rescued so I am certain they got out by themselves. Another relative, my g.g.uncle, drowned and an in-law of my dad’s family who was a student at the school, also drowned. Yarri murdered one of the explorers on the Eyre Expedition so though he saved many lives at Gundagai he was still a murderer. Yarri descendents still live at Gundagai though no one knows who they are and I am not saying. Long Jimmy of the Gundungarra people (I put that note re him on wiki) killed an opposing clan member in a tribal fight so fled to Gundagai. No inappropriate story is known about Jacky Jacky. There was a 4th Aboriginal rescuer. Gundagai is an amazing Aboriginal place with a full ceremonial ground. Few know of it and I notified it to the local people and to the heritage managers in around 2001 when I found the proof. That ground wasnt ever really lost though as I always knew it was here but had no real proof. That dog monument is a sling off about the massacre of Aboriginal people near Gundagai and it copies a major and massive landscape feature. Gundagai has recently tried to reinvent that monument story to make it less contentious and not about the massacre but it wont work. The idea of a TV is a good one. Best wishes. J.Jones

    • Readers please note that claims have been made in this comment which I am not able to verify. Please remember that many aspects of Black History are contested and it’s important to keep an open mind and to check with reliable sources when they are available. This is especially true if there are living descendants of those involved who may be distressed.
      For those who would like to investigate this further, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) is a good place to start.

  7. […] for ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, for which Lisa has also reviewed […]

  8. I enjoyed this book too Lisa … I thought it was cleverly done – lighthearted and warm but biting and feisty at the same time. I’m grateful for your winning your giveaway.

  9. Lisa Hill, AIATSIS know little of Gundagai so that likely wouldnt be a good place to start. My family have been at Gundagai since the 1840s and my dads family pre that so of course I know stuff, then when the ceremonial ground was put at risk by the proposed Old Gundagai Project in around 2001, I had to do something and luckily found what I needed to prove what I knew so that $1 million project was halted. I knew some local Aboriginal people pre that but met more and liased also with NSWNP, the heritage managers re sites. I am still in contact with both the LALC and NSWNP. Whether AIATSIS get given stuff is the yeah or nay of the local Elders. That is protocol and how Aboriginal heritage is managed in NSW. Gundagai was misplaced for a long time because of its high significance. I dont know of any Jeanine Leane but thoroughly enjoyed her book which I read online at the NSW State Library. I also let the local Aboriginal Land Council know of it and I was hoping she would win. Since I did what I did in 2002 and since I sort of know a lot of what is here as it was pointed out to me by my parents as I grew up I am very familiar with our local landscape features and lore. Few Australians know what is here though that feature is so massive it would be hard to see with the naked eye. Our family business also had one of the major landscape features as its logo. and what happens. There was no Mr Stone here in the 60s or 50s and the South Gundagai Anglican church has a far more interesting cultural link than throwing stones. The main character in the book is also of part Aboriginal ancestry too so that was a slight blooper. There is only one grey river stone house in the area that I know of, (Mrs Sewells?), but my great grandad, a stonemason built a house of grey slate in the eastern end of Sheridan St post the 1852 flood. It was knocked down around 20 years ago and there is now a newer brick house there. Long Jimmy was noted in one of the histories of Canberra that was once online, (by Wright or Clarke?). It would be well known of in Canberra. Anyway, I very much doubt if AIATSIS have much at all re Gundagai. I looked years back and there was next to nil. One of the Canberra historians (Brendan O’Keefe), wanted me to record Aboriginal Gundagai to send to AIATSIS but I declined as I send what I know and find to the Elders, Land Council & et al.
    So sad the argy bargie that happens. So much gets lost because of it and some does not get found again. Gundagai was never lost as some of the stuff passed over into the non Aboriginal population and all sites are also very verifiable by other means. We had two large archaeological surveys here in recent years so of course I registered in both so content in the way of development would be dealt with as it should be and it was. The archaeological community are very aware of Gundagai but I have not seen AIATSIS float past anything I do ever though no doubt they do do a good job and I was outside their building two days ago. I have also studied with Wiradjuri lecturers at uni plus lived in Arnhem Land for a time years back and did stuff there after I drew Gundagai for the senior elder. Yarries story is online at Trove, (NLA). His family know and they told me of their connection in 1988. More recently I verified their connection.

  10. A further note re the dog monument and the massacre in that area. I posted a link on Trove re the person who notified that massacre to the archaeologists. That person has no link to me and I do not know him personally but he is a very very long time resident of this area. Several out of town Aboriginal groups (Cowra, Young, etc) registered for that archaeological survey and one very well known senior Elder and his son visited the place the remains were placed. Gundagai had several massacres. The area was heavily involved when the Wiradjuri War happened and the downriver pastoralists moved this way after what they did at Narrandera made their continuing residence there very unwise.

  11. I do not understand why in the book ‘they’ got off the train at Junee either. To come to Gundagai or the Gundagai area, people get off the train at Cootamundra and travel to Gundagai in the 50s and 60s by a rail motor, or these days by the Countrylink coach. No one heading for Gundagai gets off the train at Junee. All locals know that.
    Its sad that this blog here claims Gundagai exists for the river crossing ala the bridge etc. It does not. The location was important in the 1820s onwards as its where the Europeans came into conflict with local very high degree Aboriginal people whose major site is here as is a mass of gold. Because of the importance of the place the invaders had to take it over totally to dislodge culture as part of the war between the Wiradjuri and the invading people. Aboriginal people lived at Gundagai for a very long time pre the arrival of the Europeans. The archaeology proves that. Some geology here is 600,000, 000 years old and Aboriginal people noted that. The old bridge got built as an adjunct to that process. My great uncle worked on it and my other great uncle carted steel from Mittagong for it. There were multiple crossings at Gundagai though, not just one. Its claimed Charles Sturt crossed the river here. he did. Read his journal. He crossed twice not once so went downriver via the north bank. People who do not know Aboriginal Gundagai just read that as he crossed once so went down the south bank. This is what happens when people dont know country and make uneducated assumptions. Some read Gundagai and as what they read does not gel with their idea of Gundagai, they then try to discredit what they read because they dont know it.

  12. I just had a look in the AIATSIS catalogue and I am familiar with all their Gundagai records and most miss the point. Books such as Alan Crooks’ tell of Yarri’s rescues but Alan didn’t know much more of Yarri’s story. Butcher’s ‘A Track Winding Back’ has Aboriginal people wandering through but makes no mention of any permanent Aboriginal settlement here. Butcher’s book gives a lot of regard to the permanent settlement of my lot though in his book. (Churches, burial ground, dwellings, sports fields, theatreand dance halls). James Demarr’s Gundagai experience is OK as it is his observation as he journeyed through in contact times. Robinson’s account is interesting and he comments on the ‘amazing nomenclature’ at Gundagai. I like Pope St and where it runs and what a pope is, or does he mean Alexander? Robinson was the Chief Protector for Port Phillip which included Gundagai in that era. No mention in any of them though of the amazing sites, Ancestors and culture here though at all so most are twaddle as they have deleted the core content. The Brungle Women’s Stories are interesting. I particularly like ‘Krypton’. Its a good example how its the original story but His name was anglicised. His name is restricted though anyway so I guess Krypton is a good substitute. My dad used to tell me about Krypton too and do the mimming that goes with it all. When I went to see the Ichabod Crane movie in around 1960 I got really annoyed as it was the same story but this time Krypton was in the US, or somewhere. Krypton sometimes becomes headless. When I first began repeating Gundagai stories as understandings of place I told some people of our Gundagai crocodile. (recorded by ANU boss in letter to Tindale.) Some decided I was crazy if I thought Gundagai had crocs. They didnt see what the river did in the 1974 flood though. In reality Gundagai once likely did have organic crocs as the South Pole was where Broken Hill now is but these days we just have ancestral crocs that act out when the rainmakers get busy. Aboriginal culture does not exist in isolation in what are now shared localities as some knowledge diffused into the non Aboriginal understanding of place as happens when people of any culture stay in one place for any length of time. Maybe Mr Stone is what the Bishop said last year that is also on wiki. Something like “if these stones could talk” in his reference to St Johns and the slate that church is built of and on top of what?

    • Goodness me, reading all this makes me think that maybe you should have your own blog and share what you know about Gundagai’s history there!

  13. Tsk Lisa. I am responding to the unaware content about the bridge, the flood, the monument, AIATSIS etc that someone put at the strart of this blog. They sailed off with a 2012 perpetuation of image of place that was no doubt collected from various popular (tourism?) depictions but they have nil much to do with the real cultural story. That is how non-Aboriginal Gundagai and others like to represent what is claimed to be iconic Gundagai and its place in the Australian story but it just all further works to delete the Aboriginal story which is sad. A statue, a bridge and a river do not make any location iconic as many other towns in Australia have those features too.

  14. […] the dismissive attitude towards men that troubles me a bit in these novels.   In Purple Threads (see my review) Jeanine Leane’s characters live in a world of women, and Aunty Boo often holds forth about […]

  15. […] Purple Threads, by Jeanine Leane (2010) […]


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