Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 31, 2014

Black Sheep, Journey to Borroloola (2002), by Nicholas Jose

21998988Black Sheep, Journey to Borroloola by Nicholas Jose is such an interesting book!  Published in 2002, it tells the story of Nicholas Jose’s quest to trace a mystery relative and how that turned into an odyssey of self-discovery.  It was shortlisted for the The Age Book of the Year in 2003 which was won that year by Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett. In the non-fiction category it was Charles Condor: The Last Bohemian by Ann Galbally that won the award.  Sometimes really good books don’t win awards the way they perhaps should…

Nicholas Jose is the author of several collections of short stories, essays, non-fiction and seven notable novels

  • Rowena’s Field (1984) Nominated for the Vogel Prize
  • Paper Nautilus (1987) See my review
  • Avenue of Eternal Peace (1989) Nominated for the 1990 Miles Franklin Prize, see my review
  • The Rose Crossing (1994)
  • The Custodians (1997), on my TBR, Shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize 1997 (South-East Asia), see my review
  • The Red Thread (2000), on my TBR
  • Original Face ( 2005), on my TBR, Sydney Morning Herald Best Books of 2005

and also the editor of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature which is my bible for information about Australian books and writing.  (You can find some of these at Readings if you type the author’s name into the search box.)

But Black Sheep, Journey to Borroloola defies categorisation: it’s part history, travel book, memoir, and quest.   Adelaide as we know is the most respectable of Australia’s capital cities, but it was from Adelaide that Jose set out in search of a disreputable relative, known to him from family rumour rather than any established relationship.  Out of sheer curiosity, Jose travelled the astonishing distance to remote Borroloola on the Macarthur River in the Northern Territory, 50 km upstream from the Gulf of Carpentaria.  In the 2011 census it had a population of 926.  It was there that he discovered the eccentric life of  Roger Jose…

Roger Jose was what they call ‘a character’.  He lived a simple live characterised by the fewness of man’s needs in a devoted relationship first with his Aboriginal wife Maggie, and then with her sister Biddie.  He was a labourer, custodian of the remarkable Borroloola Library and a bushman.  He featured in a David Attenborough doco, and a song composed by Ted Egan, which he talked about in an interview with Andrew Denton on Enough Rope:  

David Attenborough subsequently did a beautiful TV program on them called ‘The Hermits of Borroloola’. It was a group of mainly white blokes, a couple of mixed-race fellers among them, but they lived very amicably with the local Aboriginal tribe. And they had these great nicknames – there was the Reluctant Saddler and the Whispering Baritone and the White Stallion, the Moral Watchdog, the Mad Fiddler and Robbo the Lair – they all had these nicknames except for one. This bloke didn’t have a nickname but was the greatest character I ever met – a feller named Roger Jose. And so I started my songwriting career by writing a song about Roger and 28 albums later, that’s how I’ve made a living for a lot of years.

But Black Sheep is not just a family history about an interesting bloke.  It is a meditation on the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.   Jose notes that sorting out family was a matter of more than personal importance, citing John Moriaty’s view that

‘Australians had to come to terms with the reality that many whites had family histories that were very closely entwined with Aborigines.’
(see my review of Ros Moriaty’s book Listening to Country for more about this most inspiring couple).

But in tracing the story of Roger Jose, Nicholas Jose had to confront the difficulty that he was experiencing Borroloola in the present whilst also experiencing it in the writings of the past.  He was at first bothered by issues of reliability:

What is written preserves what was passed down in conversation.  It selects and shapes a series of rambling, sharpened-up oral exchanges, remembered first hand, second hand, third hand, over many years.  What is written about things here, where no one could ever check, yields to the attraction of the tall story, and, crossing the line into fiction, makes it taller.  People contradict, and that’s just another story.  I have discovered already that it’s a town where people talk.  Their role is to fill the visitor’s ear with tales.  To keep a handle on things, they become unreliable narrators.  The lines of writing are like the slats of the venetian blind in our cabin, opening out on to the airy domain of the oval, filtering it at the same time.  But the oral, still around to comment and correct, or to simply move things along in some new direction of contemporary appeal, has power to set the record adrift.  (p. 80-81).

Jose also had to confront the fact that the Borroloola of Roger Jose was in transition.  He met an young Aboriginal activist called Murrandoo Yanner with a new perspective on co-existence.  And then he had to face up to the realities of our nation’s ‘baggage’ and how inclusion and exclusion are part of its legacy:

You might think that this is a wandering book, but I have followed my nose, bringing along the baggage of an over-stocked mind with all its stray threads.  I didn’t ask at the outset what finding Roger Jose would mean.  There have ben many dead-ends and blocks along the way.  Often I felt excluded from what I wanted to know.  I have had to accept that nothing is definitive, and then make discoveries, learning that a complex past leaves a human map for the present, with tracks pointing to the future. (p252).

In the end, Jose recognises that his ‘loose-wired mind’ must be content with something similar to Alex Wright’s fictional truths, because the truest fiction can be a way of going where factual investigation can’t go. (p. 206)  I think this is probably true of most family histories, whatever the documents say…

Author: Nicholas Jose
Title: Black Sheep, Journey to Borroloola
Publisher: Hardie Grant Books, 2002
ISBN: 9781740640695
Source: Personal library, OpShop find.


There were two second-hand copies at Fishpond on the day I looked:  Black Sheep: Journey to Borroloola and it seems to be available at Readings.


  1. I’ve been doing a little amateur family history sleuthing on the Internet myself the last few days. A group of people from Wernshausens, Germany all settled near Mindoro, Wisconsin, and became farmers from about 1850 to 1870. So they knew each other over in Germany before they settled here. They built a church near Burr Oak, Wis. in 1855, and I got most of my information from a commemorative book written on the hundredth aniversary of the church. I attended that church until I was 18. It is interesting, the history..


    • The Spouse has churchgoers in his Somerset family history, they do make it easier to trace things back through the records, especially if people stay put in one place for a while. But my ragbag family history gets messy roundabout WW2, and like Jose I am more than content to know who my parents are, and leave it at that.
      After all, some people don’t even know that, or they think they do but they turn out to be wrong.


  2. […] den englischsprachigen Blogs machte ANZ LitLovers LitBlog mich neugierig auf Black Sheep, Journey to Borroloola von Nicholas Jose und Shelf Love weckte mein Interesse für Lady Audley’s Secret von Mary […]


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