Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 7, 2021

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (River of Dreams) (2021), by Anita Heiss

Anita Heiss is a prolific and well-known Indigenous author who publishes across a variety of genres, including non-fiction, historical fiction, commercial fiction, and children’s novels.  She made her first venture into historical fiction with Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms in 2017, but Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray* (River of Dreams) is a departure in style signalled by its title, the first book published with a title in the Wiradjuri language on the front cover.  Using Wiradjuri language within the narrative is a powerful demonstration that Indigenous language can be reclaimed and find its rightful place in Australian letters.

(And for me, curling my tongue around the words and phrases as I came across them in the text, it was a reminder of the 2018 Word for Word Non-Fiction Festival in Geelong when Anita as keynote speaker told her audience that she was learning her language and she introduced herself in fluent Wiradjuri.  She taught the audience to say thank you: mandaangguwu.  If you’re in Wiradjuri country, visit this site to learn how it sounds so that you can use it yourself.)

Using the real events of the 1852 Great Flood in Gundagai as a catalyst for the novel is also a way of bringing the heroism of Indigenous people into mainstream history.  Gundagai’s ‘dog on the tuckerbox’ is a well-known tourist attraction—but the real life Yarri and Jacky-Jacky risked their lives to save 69 of the people of Gundagai, a third of the population at that time, and in 2017 the town at last erected a monument to their bravery.  It’s a story that should be more widely known.

Reading Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray made me think about all the times I’ve heard that people recovering from trauma ought to ‘get over it’ and ‘move on’.  I’ve heard it said about Holocaust survivors, I’ve heard it said about victims of the Port Arthur massacre, and I’ve heard it said about the Stolen Generations.  In this novel, Wagadhaany is a Wiradyuri* teenager when she is forced from her family in Gundagai to work as indentured labour for Henry Bradley and his family.  After the Great Flood of 1852 when her father, Yarri, rescued 49 people from drowning, she is wrenched even further away when the remnants of the Bradley family move to Wagga Wagga where they think they will be safe from future floods.  Wagadhaany never gets over this separation from her family.

Heiss reinforces the devastation of this loss through events in Wagadhaany’s life.  It’s not a life of total misery. Wagadhaany feels this loss even though there is some happiness in her life.  The total loss of home and family is not something that can be overcome by efforts to build a new life.

In some ways, Wagadhaany is more fortunate than many of her Indigenous counterparts.  She works for Louisa Bradley, a well-intentioned if naïve Quaker with beliefs about equality and fairness.  While her husband James is a hard man who insists on renaming Wagadhaany as Wilma, Louisa always calls her by her real name, rejects the notion of servitude and works alongside Wagadhaany in the kitchen and the garden, although the hard labour is always done by Wagadhaany.  Louisa is keen to learn about the culture and traditions of the Wiradyuri people, but she is motivated by her desire to Christianise the ‘natives’ because, at heart, she is a prisoner of her belief in the superiority of her own culture.  She does not question her right to uproot Wagadhaany from all that she loves; she does not pay Wagadhaany for her labour; and she does not understand that the laws imposed on Wagadhaany have deprived her of choice, agency and freedom.  Wagadhaany understands all this, but because she knows about the dreadful conditions that other Indigenous servants suffer, she recognises that she is better off than most.

The most fortunate aspect of her life in Wagga Wagga is that Wagadhaany meets the love of her life, the stockman Yindymarra.  She bears his children and—thanks to Louisa repudiating her husband’s attitudes—Wagadhaany builds a life among the Wiradyuri community, reclaims the language she was not allowed to use in James Bradley’s presence, and is able to engage in cultural practices, including the dancing for which she was named by her parents.

But it is not enough.  She longs to see her parents, her siblings, her aunties and her cousins.  She yearns to see the familiar places of her home.  In a sequence where Yindy takes his young sons out bush following the tradition he had with his father, to learn the ways of the land, he comforts them when they are missing their mother.

That night they sit by the fire to eat the snake Yindy has killed.

‘I miss Gunhi’, Galari says.

‘Me too,’ Ngarrang responds.

‘Look up,’ their father says, indicating the stars.  ‘See the bilabang?’ He points to the Milky Way.

‘No, where?’ I can’t see it.’

‘There, over there,’ Yindy repeats, ‘that group of stars, with the white all around it, just there.  Your mother and Miima are sleeping under the same stars as us tonight, so we are still together.’  (p.331)

Despite these words of comfort, they run to their mother as soon as their adventure is over:

As soon as they see the she-oak where they left their mother and sister, they look to Yindy, silently seeking approval.  When he nods, they run as fast as their legs will carry them.  He too wants to run, but he’ll let them have their time first. (p.333)

Events build up and eventually Yindymarra realises that Wagadhaany has been suffering from depression for a very long time, and that the only solace he can offer is to take her to where she belongs. The risks involved in leaving the place to which they are bonded by the Master and Servants Act 1840 were extreme.  As Anita explains in the Historical Notes, the provisions of the act were that

a servant was not allowed to disobey their master, be absent from work for any length of time, or leave their job without permission.  The punishment was harsh: a servant could have their wage confiscated or be imprisoned. (p.387)

The tension rises as Yindy has to make an invidious choice between the mental health of his beloved wife, and the risks of escape…

This is unforgettable storytelling that will wrench your heart.

*If you’re not sure how to pronounce Yarru-dhangga-lang-dhu-ra, you can hear how it’s done on this video of the irrepressible Anita sighting her book for the first time.

Anita Heiss is a Wiradyuri woman from NSW.

*Wiradyuri is more commonly spelled as Wiradjuri, but it is spelled with ‘y’ instead of ‘j’ in this book because, as explained in the Glossary, there is no letter ‘j’ in the Wiradyuri language.

There are book club reading questions here.

Author: Anita Heiss
Title: Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (River of Dreams)
Cover design and images by Luke Causby and Grahamc
Cover art by Luke Penrith, of Wiradjuri heritage
Publisher: Simon and Schuster, 2021
ISBN: 9781760850449, pbk., 394 pages including Glossary, Historical Note and Acknowledgements
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books

This post was written on the traditional land of the Ngaruk-Willam clan, one of the six clans of the Bunerong (Boonwurrung or Boon wurrung) saltwater people of the Kulin nation.


  1. […] see Lisa’s ANZ LitLovers review […]


  2. I greatly admire Dr. Anita Heiss for her activism and committment to documenting obscured histories, voices, and lived experiences of Australian Aboriginal people through the written word. Yesterday, I listened to Dr. Heiss’ talk on her novel Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray on the Logan Libraries’ YouTube channel. In Dr. Heiss’ presentation, she discussed the origins and process of writing the novel. What makes her novel a compelling novel to read is her keen attention to characterization, historical relevance, and ancestral responsibility. I hope to read Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray in the near future. I’m going to put it on my TBR list. Thank you for your review Lisa.
    Sonia, U.S.


    • I’ll have to search out that author talk too, I love hearing Anita talk.
      (BTW, I usually refer to authors by their surnames, but I’ve met Anita in person, and had drinks with her at the hotel in Geelong. So I think it’s ok to be on first name terms!)


  3. Another book I loved! And I want to listen to Dr Heiss’s talk (I see the link above). Thank you.


  4. Still disappointed I missed those sessions with Anita at the Capricorn Writer’s Festival. I must read this, my son gave it to me for Mother’s day.


  5. Just to say, Lisa, that I am enjoying, and learning from, your Indigenous Literature Week posts, even if I am not commenting on them – I somehow feel that would be a little presumptuous, given my lack of knowledge in this area. But they are all very enlightening.


  6. Apologies to Jennifer, Theresa and Kaggsy: I was AWOL for most of yesterday because I had a monster headache and spent the day horizontal and spaced out on painkillers that didn’t work.


  7. I recently bought this book. Enjoyed the review of it. Stay warm up there!


    • It’s been brisk over night, but the days are just beautiful, fine and crisp and my jasmine is coming into bloom!


  8. I am looking forward to reading this book myself very soon, so have only skimmed your review and will come back and write a proper response when I’ve read the book. So wonderful to hear Anita pronounce the book’s title, though! She makes it sound effortless, but my tongue gets tied speaking English let alone any other language !


    • Sorry I missed this comment, Kim… July 9th was when I broke my wrist *sigh*.

      Liked by 1 person

      • How’s it going… your wrist, I mean? I have not noticed a decline in your blog output!


        • Well, today I found out that I’ve torn the ligament as well as fracturing it, so that’s not great.
          But I’m getting movement back in my fingers now that the swelling has gone down:)


          • Oh, that’s not good re: torn ligament, but good to hear the fingers are working!


            • It makes a whole lot of things easier, but knives and scissors are still beyond me.


  9. In the climate change reading I’ve been doing, I came across a novel published by a small press on the east coast that has also graced the cover with the language of the Dene indigenous people as well as the English translation (and many of Katlia’s – aka Catherine Lafferty’s – characters in the books are not introduced via English translations but their proper culture-based names) but it certainly does seem to be a slow process (only available here, as far as I’ve “discovered” on children’s books otherwise so far).


    • It’s complicated by the number of Indigenous languages here. It’s like Europe and Africa, no one can know all of them.


  10. […] Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray River of Dreams, by Anita Heiss (Simon and Schuster), see my review […]


  11. […] Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray River of Dreams, by Anita Heiss (Simon and Schuster), see my review […]


  12. […] Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray River of Dreams, by Anita Heiss (Simon and Schuster), see my review […]


  13. […] while No One, by John Hughes unravels our sense of place in Sydney. Anita Heiss’s new novel Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (River of Dreams) shows how the values of our towns can shift over time, so that now the people of Gundagai are ready […]


  14. […] Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss (Simon & Schuster Australia), see my review […]


  15. […] Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray/River of Dreams by Anita Heiss (Simon & Schuster Australia), see my review […]


  16. […] Anita Heiss’s Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray: “much-needed look at white settlement from an Indigenous maid’s point of view” (Jane Sullivan) (on my TBR, Lisa’s review) […]


  17. […] Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (River of Dreams), by Anita Heiss […]


  18. […] Anita Heiss, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (novel) (TBR, Lisa’s review) […]


  19. […] Lisa (ANZ LitLovers) has also recommends this book. […]


  20. As you know by now, I have finally read and reviewed this book and enjoyed it too. It’s an excellent corrective to settler stories in so many ways. I was particularly fascinated by the Quakers.

    I also practised saying it many times before I started so I could tell people, properly, what I was reading when they asked. And I see that I naturally broke it down into those syllables you’ve given. I’ve just clicked on your link and feel I got it OK though would need real training to get the proper intonation, The astonishing thing to me is that Mr Gums looked at the cover once and made an excellent fist of it, while I had to read, practise, read, practise, of course Mr Gums reads German SO is used to long words!


    • It sounds beautiful once you get your tongue around it.

      Liked by 1 person

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