Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 5, 2021

The Cherry Picker’s Daughter, by Kerry Reed-Gilbert

Cultural warning to Indigenous readers: This post contains the names of people who have passed away.


A Wiradjuri woman, Kerry Reed-Gilbert (1956-2019) was a poet, author, editor, and an Aboriginal rights activist.   Among her other achievements was her involvement in writers’ groups and in the publishing of Indigenous authors.  She was the inaugural Chairperson of the First Nations Australia Writers Network (FNAWN) which was conceived in 1993 by Anita Heiss, Jared Thomas and Reed-Gilbert herself.  It came into being in 2011-12 and has been instrumental in supporting the growth and development of Indigenous writing ever since.  Reed was also a member of the Aboriginal Studies Press Advisory Committee, and you will have seen, from time to time, books published by AIATSIS on this blog.

Reed-Gilbert’s memoir, The Cherry Picker’s Daughter was published posthumously, the final revisions arriving at the publishers just as she passed away.

You can read Sue’s obituary at Whispering Gums. 

The Cherry Picker’s Daughter is not an autobiography; it is a memoir of childhood in the 1950s and 60s and it tells nothing of Reed-Gilbert’s achievements in adulthood.  Told in a child’s voice, this memoir is a poignant window onto a bygone way of life.  It documents the hardships of Indigenous families that worked hard to stay out of the clutches of The Welfare, and it demonstrates the pernicious effects of racism to which the family was routinely subjected. It recalls the loving care Kerry received from the aunt and uncle who took her into their home and treated her as one of their own.  The book is dedicated to this aunt, her father’s sister, Jacqueline Joyce Hutchings, whom the author calls ‘Mummy’ because this strong, indefatigable woman was the mainstay of her young life.

Readers of Eve Langley’s The Pea Pickers (1942, recently reviewed by Brona at This Reading Life) will recognise the itinerant life of fruit pickers and their families.  For Kerry’s family, along with casual work at stick-picking, felling trees, cooking at the pub and cleaning, Mummy took work at cherry-picking.  Then (as now) it was physically demanding and poorly paid.  Indigenous pickers were paid less than other workers, but there was no option but to accept this injustice if the children were to be well-fed and well-dressed to avoid the attention of The Welfare.  Attendance at school was also crucial, but it was at school that Reed-Gilbert first encountered direct person-to-person racism that she could not avoid.  She also recalls an abusive family member who can’t be avoided, and doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the violence and exploitation of women within her own community.

This is one of my favourite moments in the memoir:

In October, we’re all camped at Meryl’s and my thirteenth birthday is tomorrow.  I’m sleeping in the lounge room again.  I’m so happy.  When I wake up, I’ve got a piece of string tied to my finger and I gotta follow it to find my present.  The string goes into the kitchen, it goes round the bread canister, around the toaster, down and out of a cupboard, out into the laundry and it’s still not ending.

The string, it’s going everywhere.  I’m so excited!  I follow it out the back door and under the lemon tree and orange trees up along the back fence into the flowers.  Finally, I come to the end, lying there with the Lily of the Valley. I’ve found a little box on the end of the string.  I gotta watch, my very own watch!  Mummy tells me that now I’m getting ready for high school next year, I need my own watch to tell the time. (p.157)

On that day she also learns that the box was placed among Lily of the Valley because they were her mother’s favourite flowers, and she adds this to the small store of information that she has about her biological mother.

She visits her maternal grandparents but is cautioned never to mention her father in their presence, though she doesn’t know why the relationship is difficult.  But years later when they die, Kerry and her brother know why they are not named with the other grandchildren on the headstone, and this aspect of their story is revealed in the Postscript.

Written in an entirely different style, and after the memoir was finished in 2006 but not published, this Postscript reveals the threats of legal action that hindered the publication of the memoir. It reveals conflicts amongst this once close family which is sad to see.

Throughout The Cherry Picker’s Daughter a reader can sense a tension between the child’s love for her biological father and her limited knowledge of his role in the death of her biological mother.  She is shielded from the truth, which is that he was convicted of murdering his wife, Goma Scott Gilbert in 1957, and did fourteen years in prison for it.  Kerry visits him three times in her childhood without knowing what he did, and she writes that she loves him.  It is not until she is older that she learns the truth.  And she is shattered when the campaign for his release results in his claim that he killed his wife because of her infidelity, and that he disowns the children of that marriage as not his own.   In the wake of his death in 1993, her anger about this spills over into legal warfare with the Kevin Gilbert Memorial Trust and the Kevin Gilbert Estate.  On the one hand she is proud of his achievements (which you can read about here) and she recognises the difficulties of his life, but she demands the removal of disrespectful language from his book Because a White Man’ll Never Do It which claims the killing of her mother was unintentional. This is deceitful and dishonest, she says.

This is not the place to  argue the ins and outs of such a painful episode.  I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to learn that one parent was responsible for the death of the other.  But when violence against women is so prevalent, and a woman is killed each week in Australia, I do find it difficult that Kevin Gilbert’s entry at the Indigenous Australia pages of the Australian Dictionary of Biography includes a mere one-line mention of this murder and then goes on to detail the hardships of his time in prison.  It troubles me that in the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature (p.76), the profile for Kevin Gilbert says merely that In 1957 he was sentenced to life imprisonment when his wife was killed in a domestic dispute.  Note the use of the passive voice there, distancing him from the crime, and contrast it with how his daughter Kerry describes the event:

My father did, on the day of 11 January 1957, maliciously and heinously murder my mother, of which he was found guilty.  He received a life sentence which was then reduced to fourteen and a half years, with a release in 1971.  My brother and myself were the survivors of that horrendous murder.  We were in the panel van at the time of her death.  He made us orphans the day he pulled the trigger. (p.232)

Kerry was three months old and her brother Kevin was 18 months.

Yes, there can be redemption, but there needs to be truth-telling too.  It’s understandable that Kerry’s Postscript includes these words:

Hopefully you, the reader, will think with your conscience and not pick up any more Kevin Gilbert books or artwork so as to honour and respect a young woman who had two children to the man she loved, and was killed by him. (p.232)

Kerry Reed-Gilbert was a Wiradjuri woman from New South Wales.

Author: Kerry Reed-Gilbert
Title: The Cherry Picker’s Daughter
Design by Debra Bilson, cover painting ‘The Cherry Pickers, c.1970, by Kevin Gilbert
Publisher: Deadly Dingo Books, (Imprint of Wild Dingo Press), 2019
ISBN: 9781925893090, pbk., 239 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $29.95


Responses

  1. I really want to read this given she was from my region. She was greatly loved by the local arts community here I believe. Thanks for the link!

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    • You will see in the introduction that yes, she was greatly loved.

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      • I didn’t read the intro as I still hope to read the book myself. I attended a FAWN event here about 3 years ago, before she died, and the love and respect were palpable

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        • Like Aunty Joy Murphy here in Melbourne. We all love and respect her too.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Ah, she’s a bit different. Reed-Gilbert would not do Welcome to Country as she’s Wiradjuri (like Stan Grant) which is west, north, east of Canberra. We have other loved people, our first one being Matilda House, who are from our Ngambri-Ngunnawal people. (These people have a complicated story, though.)

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            • LOL it can be very complicated indeed, as we discovered at school when we *finally* got staff and school council agreement to include an acknowledgement of country in our assembles. We had to have an official ceremony as part of the protocols, but who/which to ask to perform it was (a-hem) not easy.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. […] See Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers […]

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  3. I have this on my TBR pile too. I suspected some of the content would be tough going, but it sounds like an important memoir.

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    • Yes, it’s true, some Indigenous writing is tough going, but I think that Indigenous authors are leading the way with truth-telling which is part of what’s wanted in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Lisa, I appreciate your insight on the late Kerry Reid Gilbert’s memoir. Prior to reading your book review, I learned of Reid-Gilbert’s mentorship of Indigenous writers and her committment to literary and social justice activisms. What shines forth in the excerpts from her early life story is that truth-telling, perseverance, and courage stand the test of time.
    Sonia

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    • Yes, “truth-telling, perseverance, and courage stand the test of time” — that’s a great way to put it.

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  5. I agree with you, Lisa. I read this last year: https://tasmanianbibliophileatlarge.wordpress.com/2020/01/27/the-cherry-pickers-daughter-by-kerry-reed-gilbert/

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    • LOL I’m always playing catch-up, I’ll add it to the reading list now, thank you!
      PS Thanks for providing the URL!

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  6. What a life story!
    Thanks for this fascinating review.

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    • Good to hear from you Emma!

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      • I’m buried in work, trying to catch my breath. 😪

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        • I’m sending relaxing thoughts your way x

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  7. Great review and what a powerful book – and a clarion call for changes in the way crimes against women are treated.

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    • Yes. It’s always difficult, but in this case, the perpetrator was the author’s father and she loved him, *and* he’s a hero of Aboriginal activism. But redemption, IMO, begins with truth-telling.
      In a way, this case is a metaphor for Black-White relations in this country. Redemption for the colonial sins of the past begins with truth-telling *and* it is for those sinned against, not others, to decide when redemption has been achieved.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This sounds very powerful. I’ve not heard of a memoir of childhood being written from a child’s point of view before, it’s such an interesting decision to take.

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  9. This is a must. I was unaware of her father’s past and feel quite distressed after reading your review. It takes great courage to speak truth to power and this woman had it in heaps.

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    • I’m sorry, Fay… do you think I should put a warning at the top?

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  10. Phew, what a life. As you say…it’s hard to imagine the kind of emotional devastation such an act of violence would wreck, reverberating through generations to come. (That bio is so curious…I wonder if there are court actions which led to expressing it in such terms. In the context of this memoir, it certainly seems disingenuous to say the least.)

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    • Hmm, yes, I hadn’t thought of there being legal issues. I’m reacting to it in the context of ongoing violence against women and the way the media often diminishes the criminal aspects of the murder of women. We see the media stories about *the murderer’s* mental health, how surprising the murder is because he was a ‘good father’ and worse, stories that hint that he was ‘provoked’.

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