Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 30, 2017

The Honest History Book, edited by David Stephens and Alison Broinowski

I came across this most interesting book via  historian Anna Clark’s excellent review at the Sydney Review of Books and – seriously – that is where you must go if you want a proper evaluation of why this is an important book for Australians to read.  Anna Clark was one of the  historians at the History Summer School I attended in 2008, and she presented a paper about her research into why Australian students think Australian history is boring.  It was a compelling argument and it changed the way I taught Australian history – and because I was Director of Curriculum at my school and also not shy about sharing my efforts at reform at conferences and on my professional blog Clark’s ideas went far beyond her audience that day in Canberra.  (It was one of the criteria for selection into the Summer School that we brag about what we’d learned in other professional development forums).

In a nutshell, the take-home message from The Honest History Book is that we do ourselves (and our children) a disservice if we focus on Anzac at the expense of other aspects of our history.

When a single thread of our nation’s story is teased out to excess, it strangles the other threads.  Australian history is social and cultural, political and economic, religious and anthropological, archaeological and scientific, as well as military.  It is made by women, men, individuals, families, artists, philosophers, scientists, businesspeople, public servants, soldiers and politicians.  We carry the imprint of the First Australians; the builders of the CSIRO, the Sydney Opera House and the Snowy Scheme; the pioneers of the bush frontier in the 19th century and the urban frontier in the 1950s and 1960s; and ‘boat people’, whether convicts, post-war ‘ten pound Poms’ and ‘New Australians’ and asylum seekers, Australian history is to the credit – and discredit – of all of us, not just our Diggers. (p. 4)

So the book covers some of the territory in James Brown’s Anzac’s Long Shadow, but it also explores our history of progressive nation-building reforms and our economic and environmental history and it does some myth-busting about our egalitarianism, our heroes and the role of women.  Larissa Behrendt deserves special mention for her chapter ‘Settlement or Invasion? The Coloniser’s quandary’ in which she talks about the need to bury the myth of settlement:

For Indigenous people, the perennial questions posed by that moment of invasion in 1788 are about the best strategies for surviving it and determining how to assert Indigenous identity, culture and sovereignty as it faces assaults from the dominant culture every day. These continuing, two-and-a-quarter-century-old tensions lie beneath policy questions (Closing the Gap, dealing with incarceration, education, domestic violence, drugs and alcohol) and constitutional options (Recognise or Treaty or both).  For the rest of Australia, there is the challenge of how the dominant national narrative – the story the nation tells itself – deals with the invasion moment.  This question has become bogged down in the emotions of the ‘invasion’ or ‘settled’ debate.  The stand-off gets in the way of a more sophisticated, nuanced and inclusive narrative.  Unless and until we get that part of the story straight – finally – the other parts matter less.  (p. 238)

And not only that, the chapter by Mark McKenna, provocatively titled ‘King, Queen and Country, will Anzac thwart republicanism?’ sounds an alarm bell for those of us very keen to rid ourselves of the anachronism of the monarchy before Elizabeth II dies so that we leave the excruciating embarrassment of having Charles III as a King to the Brits.  Also looking to the future, Alison Broinowski, in ‘Militarism versus Independence’ says that Settler Australia had war in its genes, and asks thoughtful questions about the lengthening list of Australia’s wars – noting that Australia is increasingly disposed towards shaping the world with armed force – even as our leaders claim our country is a ‘good global citizen’.

I’ll admit that some parts of The Honest History Book are a bit dry.  When I think of ways and means for Australians to broaden their awareness of other parts of our history, it’s novels that come to mind.  Almost any one of the books by Indigenous authors that I’ve reviewed make a good starting point for learning about our Black history.  Kate Grenville’s Colonial Trilogy involves truth-telling about settlement, though I’d stick to The Secret River and The Lieutenant and not bother with the last one with its fantasy of reconciliation ending.  Lucy Treloar has also written movingly about the realities of settlement including dispossession in Salt Creek; while in Robbed of Every Blessing, John Tully draws a link between the colonial appropriation of indigenous land and the British Occupation of Ireland.  Richard Flanagan’s Wanting is another that has shaped my knowledge of the Black history of colonial Tasmania, as has Rohan Wilson’s The Roving PartyWe can learn about the Depression and the truths about egalitarianism by reading vivid novels like Ruth Park’s Harp in the South and Hunger Town by Wendy Scarfe.  Tom Keneally, the Balzac of Australia, also writes illuminating historical fiction, including – for example – The People’s Train about a communist union leader in Brisbane just before the Russian Revolution.   Paranoia about communism also gets a run in Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light and The Memory Room by Christopher Koch.  Proper historians will quibble with some justification that novelists have been known to play fast and loose with the historical record, and if there is one thing that the contributors to The Honest History Book all want is for our knowledge of history to be based on evidence but still, I would argue that novels written by authors of great skill and integrity play a crucial part in making our real history palatable.

In the conclusion, the editors consider the skills that should be taught to schoolchildren and that our journalists need too, and they quote the philosopher Raymond Gaita:

… ‘the capacity to think critically requires also that we develop an ear for tone, for what rings false, for what is sentimental, or has yielded to pathos and so on.’

Yes.  Yes indeed…

Editors: David Stephens and Alison Broinowski
Title: The Honest History Book
Publishers: New South Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781742235264
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Honest History Book


Responses

  1. I’m with you. Dry histories might provide a basis, but our understanding is carried forward by stories – novels and films. No history has the punch of That Deadman Dance nor the influence of characters in popular tv series.

    • Yes, one of the authors acknowledged that by discussing the power of Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli.
      And speaking as a teacher, I always found that beautifully illustrated picture books with thoughtful prose were the very best for teaching history.

  2. Interesting, engaging histories give us the whole story. But it’s only relatively recently that the whole Australian story has begun to be told (rather than the previously relentless focus on white men, at work). A good example of an engaging history book is Clare Wright’s Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. Great review Lisa, thanks.

    • Thanks:) To have the whole story, I think we need a patchwork of biography, memoir, histories and fiction – maybe music too! But *chuckle* who then would have time to read it all?

  3. i would hope that some people having got a taste of the history from one of the novels you mention would be so interested they would then progress to an academic book on the topic. Or am I being naive??

    • I’m afraid I’d be a disappointment to you: I’ve read a few novels set in the Depression but never felt the slightest urge to read a history of it!

    • Interesting comment, Karen. I’d never really thought of it that way. Do you think that’s necessary? If you don’t, you certainly can’t spout “facts” about the Depression, for example, but you can have some understanding. I wouldn’t have time to read academic histories on every historical topic that interests me from my fiction reading.

  4. Sounds excellent Lisa. Love that quote from page 4 showing the diversity of history, love the mention of organisations. Of course history doesn’t have to be dry as we know. That said, I totally agree regarding the role of fiction in conveying history, though it requires readers able to discern the truths from the fiction. Like you I’ve learned a lot about our past through fiction, including so many stories I didn’t know or whose impact I didn’t quite realise. Those stories can really stick.

    • I meant, organisations like that reference to the CSIRO.

      • I really don’t know how people learn about the world when they don’t read books!

        • I guess you can, Lisa. Not everyone can read and I’d hate to assume they didn’t know about the world – you can learn a lot by listening I expect – but it must certainly be a whole lot harder to do!

          • I reckon so, and it’s also more dependent on other people who may or may not be filtering the information to suit themselves.

            • Yes and no, I think Lisa. We consider the authors we choose based on what we know about them. You can also choose the speakers you listen to? Which news or current affairs, which podcasts, which friends, etc?

              • Apparently the evidence is that people now get their news from Facebook, and the people they choose are the people they agree with. And now they can always find someone who agrees with them, even if they are complete nutters or conspiracy theorists.
                But I wasn’t really thinking of news, I was thinking more about knowing how people live in other places round the world, what matters to someone who lives in Ghana, or how people make a living in Chile and so on. When people talk about the US nuking North Korea I think about the people in Bandi’s The Accusation. I have a sense of North Koreans as real people that I didn’t have before reading the book.

                • Oh yes sure. I was answering in the theoretical. You can learn about the world without reading, and as you say with your Facebook eg, just because you read doesn’t mean you get good information. And then, too, I know that I am more likely to read or listen to people I agree with. I never listen to shock jocks, and I avoid reading conservative commentators.

                  Learning about other people in the world can be done too … I saw an interview on the ABC recently with a young woman who managed to escape North Korea. But it would be harder that way because there’s less content in non written forms. That said, if we really wanted to, I bet there’s a lot on You Tube. I heard on the ABC this morning about what the Karen people of Myanmar are doing to improve their security and the environment by creating Peace Parks. Fascinating and inspiring stuff.

                  So, I agree reading is a wonderful conduit to other worlds but I think modern technologies, starting with the radio, can be a wonderful resource too. As with reading it’s about the choices we make?

                • Yes, I do like radio, mainly Radio National. I’ve learned a lot from their programs, though I find I don’t retain the detail like I do with reading. Maybe I’ve trained my brain more in the visual and less in the oral…

                • Yes, me too … that’s why I always take notes! (And yes, Radio National mostly here too.)

  5. I’m so glad my year 12 history class focused on Federation as well as Gallipoli – it broadened my perspective.
    I’d love to see more history written that’s as engaging as the best fiction. Sarah Murgatroyd’s Dig Tree was one book which opened my eyes to the possibility of it.
    Your comments about fiction brought to mind the discipline designation ‘Australian Studies’, which allows some crossing of the usual boundaries. History and literature need each other in my opinion, and part of the deadend English studies has found itself in is its divorce from history.
    But that’s moving off topic. Thanks for the review.

    • Oh yes, I’d forgotten The Dig Tree, such a brilliant book and tragic that the author died so young.

  6. […] Please Explain: John Safran and Anna Broinowski on Australia’s transition from left-leaning multiculturalism to the divided landscape in which we now find ourselves (Broinowski was one of the editors of The Honest History Book which I reviewed last week). […]


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