Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 6, 2017

Maralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s story (2016), by Christobel Mattingley

Maralinga's Long Shadow

Indigenous readers are advised that this review contains the names of deceased persons.

Maralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s Story is a book I picked up from the NAIDOC week display at the Parkdale branch of Kingston Libraries, and it raises an interesting issue in terms of authorship.

This week is Indigenous Literature Week, and I’ve always wanted it to be about books authored by Indigenous people.  But in this instance, Yvonne Edwards died unexpectedly just as – after a long and busy life as an artist and activist – she had at last begun working with author Christobel Mattingley on writing her story.   Mattingley has therefore constructed Yvonne’s story from interviews and conversations with Yvonne, an interview on ABC Radio’s Message Stick and some input from Yvonne’s family and friends.  It is profusely illustrated with beautiful art works by Yvonne and there are some photographs as well.

While the artworks tell the vivid story of Yvonne’s people, the Anangu people of what is now known as Maralinga, the book is written in the third person in English that is simple and direct, and includes some use of Pitjantjatjara.  It does not purport to be Yvonne’s own voice but it does appear to be written entirely from her perspective.  Although there is a comprehensive author’s note at the back of the book which explains its genesis and her method, still,  it’s not possible to glean from any signals in the text whether this perspective or parts of it have been inferred by the author or drawn directly from Mattingley’s interviews and conversations.  The reader has no way of telling which of the opinions expressed are the sympathetic opinions of the author or the recorded opinions of the subject.  The tone is always respectful of the subject and the draft was approved  by members of Yvonne’s family.   So it seems to me that the book sits awkwardly in a space between a rather naïve way of writing biography written for the children’s or YA market, and a genuine attempt to reproduce the story that Yvonne would herself have told, in words she would have used, and telling a story that otherwise might not have been told.


The story begins in the years long before atomic testing:

Before Maralinga the Anangu people cared for their country for generation after countless generation.  Their land was their being, their spirit, their life.  They knew no other.  They wanted no other.  They loved its rockholes and red sands, its creatures great and small, its trees, its bushes, its flowers, its fruits.  Above all they cared for its kapi, its water, its precious water, and used it wisely, walking many miles from one rockhole to another, always seeking permission from Wanampi, the Rainbow Serpent, who guarded each one, before they took the living water.  (p.1) [This page is accompanied by a detail from Yvonne Edwards’ (undated) painting of Wanampi.]

It goes on to briefly record the arrival of European settlement, dispossession and the Lutheran mission, but it is the peremptory evacuation from their homelands and removal to Yalata by the atomic commission that is the main focus.

But without warning, life at Ooldea was brought to an end for its Anangu people.  Suddenly they were forcibly removed from this ancient oasis, cut off from its life-giving waters which had sustained their ancestors through countless cruel droughts.  All because two groups of walypala, people in faraway cities, could not solve their differences.  The United Aborigines Mission executive ordered the South Australian branch to close its mission at Ooldea.

On 24 June 1952 the Anangu were told to leave.  It was a turbulent day of deep distress.  They wept and wailed, and over 60 years on they still wail at the memory of the betrayal, and how they were forced to leave.  East, west, north, south they went or were sent.  Walking, or on the train. Or on trucks taking them from the home and heartland, which many would never see again.

So the Anangu were sent to the country of another Aboriginal people, land to which the Anangu people were not related, land which the South Australian government had taken.  Land which walypala farmers did not want because it was too hard, too harsh.  Limestone land, hard and harsh under bare brown feet.  So different from the soft red sand the Anangu had always known.  (pp.19-21)

What is shocking about this dispossession is that it is so recent.  It did not take place during Australia’s colonial history, or in its settlement phase.  It occurred within living memory and although the land has now been restored to indigenous ownership, it is irrevocably damaged by radiation.  Yvonne Edwards blames that radiation for the cancers that killed some of her family members.  She had tragic losses, including the death of her first born son who had been taken from her and adopted out, and who in adulthood had not long been reunited with his birth family again.  Yet hers was a life of sustained achievement, creating beautiful artworks, and active in her community, especially in trying to reduce the harm done by alcohol.  She was determined to make Australians aware of the Maralinga story, and with other members of her community had previously worked with Mattingley on a children’s picture book called Maralinga, The Anangu Story, also written from an indigenous perspective.

These resources would be useful for indigenous studies programs in schools, but because they are written from the indigenous perspective, they would need to be balanced by additional materials.  It’s important that students be given the facts, and taught strategies that enable them to make up their own minds.  That’s what history is about.  So while I myself am strongly opposed to nuclear armament and believe that the use of the land at Maralinga and elsewhere in Australia was unconscionable, in the interests of a balanced curriculum, I’d be teaching the students to interrogate these two Mattingley books objectively, and I’d be providing materials that explain more about The Cold War and nuclear testing than is presented in the books.

BTW All the royalties from the book have been given to Yvonne Edwards’ five surviving children.

ILW 2017This is my fourth book for Indigenous Literature Week 2017.

Author: Christobel Mattingley
Title: Maralinga’s Long Shadow, Yvonne’s Story
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2016
ISBN: 9781760290177
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Maralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s Story


  1. Sorry, holidaying – dining out every night! – has put me behind in my blog reading. Obviously it was a difficult writing process to classify but I imagine Yvonne Edward’s family were happy that her voice is being heard. As an aside, Ooldea was where Daisy Bates camped. The springs there had made it an important site for Indigenous people for thousands of years, but it was severely disrupted for half a century prior to the bomb tests, while the water was taken for the trans-Australia steam trains.


    • *chuckle* What with ILW and Rare Books Week I’m hopelessly behind in reading everyone else’s blogs too.
      Yes, I agree that it’s good to have Yvonne’s story, but it’s different when she’s not alive to give her approval to what’s written in her name, as for instance when Boori Monty Pryor can when he collaborates with Meme McDonald. For that reason, I think it should be made clearer when we are hearing her own words, and when the commentary or interpretation is the author’s. Even if this is a children’s book (written for 10-14 year olds?) I think they can cope with clear signals that show the difference. As it is, the assumption students will make is that it’s all Yvonne’s words, and I suspect that it’s not.


  2. […] Maralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s story, by Christobel Mattingley […]


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