Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 16, 2022

Freedom Ride, by Sue Lawson

Cultural warning: this post contains the names of an Indigenous person who has died.

I don’t often read YA novels, but I picked this one up because it’s the only fiction I’ve ever seen that deals with the 1965 Freedom Ride in Australia.

As you can see in more detail at the AIATSIS website, this Freedom Ride led by the Indigenous activist Charlie Perkins (1936-2000) was a significant event in Australia’s Black History.

In 1965, a group of students from the University of Sydney drew national and international attention to the appalling living conditions of Aboriginal people and the racism that was rife in New South Wales country towns. Known as the Freedom Ride, this 15-day bus journey through regional New South Wales would become a defining moment in Australian activism.

Sue Lawson’s Freedom Ride was a nominee for significant prizes in 2016: the CBCA Book of the Year, Older Readers; the NSW Premier’s Young People’s History Prize and the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature; and the WA Premier’s Book Awards.  The novel has a continuing place in ensuring the event is not forgotten, but it also has a continuing relevance today,

Because before long, all Australians will be voting in a referendum that calls for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. And there will be pockets of Australia that will be resistant to that change.

Lawson is not Indigenous, but her novel asks the question, what was it like to be an ordinary white boy living in a blatantly racist community and to confront your own unthinking acceptance of it?  What was it like to see racism expressed openly — and publicly — by your own family and friends and even the girl you fancy?  What was it like to overcome your own hesitancy and fear to stand up for what is right, knowing that you are in a vulnerable minority?  This novel is powerful because it’s based on documentary records of the time (including the diary of Freedom Rider Ann Curthoys) but the focus is not so much the protest as an external catalyst for change but on the process of change from within.

Freedom Ride shows just how difficult it was for any locals to confront the prevailing racism.  It doesn’t do this to make readers feel sorry for them; it shows the entrenched racism that anyone of good will was up against. When Barry Gregory returns to the fictional town of Walgaree (an amalgam of outback NSW towns Moree and Walgett), he employs teenage Robbie for weekend and holiday work in his caravan park. When business gets busier, Barry also employs a young Aboriginal boy called Micky from the Aboriginal camp. Barry is immediately ostracised, and Robbie gets bullied at school.  When the town perceives the challenge to the status quo segregation from the university students on the Freedom Ride, the treatment of Barry escalates to violent threats, damage to his caravan park, and economic sabotage including exclusion from banking services and short-term credit accounts with local shopkeepers.

While the novel also asserts that there is a responsibility to act, it also shows the importance of enablers, people like Barry Gregory and his mother, and the out-of-town policeman who provide support and moral authority for changes in behaviour.  Robbie, surrounded by hostile peers at school and the fury of his tyrannical grandmother and sole-parent father at home, has other problems which amplify the ways in which small town secrets are hushed up so effectively.  As a plot device, Robbie’s discovery of his back story provides him with a bolt-hole if things get really difficult.  It gets him out of harm’s way.

The novel’s ending is a realistic scenario.  There is no simplistic resolution to the confrontations in the climax: the Aboriginal women defuse the violence with courageous truth-telling, and Robbie finds the courage to denounce the hit-and-run driver who killed an Aboriginal man, but Walgaree is not going to change overnight.  It isn’t clear if Barry’s caravan park will ever revert to being the thriving business that it was.  Lawson doesn’t resolve that or any of the other problems such as changing the culture at the school, the police force and the business community.

Freedom Ride asks any of us, what would you have done then?  Would you have had the courage?

Thirty years after the Freedom Ride The Spouse and I were on a sentimental outback journey to visit a little place called Come By Chance, said to be the place where his seven-year-old ancestor had never seen rain and didn’t know what it was when she saw it.  En route, we stopped for fuel and engaged in the usual chitchat triggered by the Victorian number plates. To my appalled astonishment we were warned not to go to Walgett.  I won’t share the racist content of this catalogue of crime and violence that was said to await us.  Needless to say, we argued over it, and stayed overnight in a Walgett motel as planned, where the most eventful thing that happened was a skink in the bathroom.  My point is that it was comparatively easy to challenge that racism and then get in the car and drive away.  It’s not so easy when you live in a community where that kind of racism is the prevailing attitude and there isn’t even any so-called political correctness to make people keep their racist thoughts to themselves.

It was interesting to see in the book credits that Freedom Ride was developed as part of a Creative Time Residential Fellowship provided by the May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust. Visiting their site offers an amazing roll call of writers supported by this fellowship. (Scroll down to 2014 on their alumni page to read about Sue Lawson) and you can also read an interview about it with Sue Lawson at Read Plus.

Author: Sue Lawson
Title: Freedom Ride
Publisher: Black Dog Books, an imprint of Walker Books, 2015
Cover design: images are credited to Shutterstock but I can’t find the name of the designer/s.
ISBN: 9781925126365, pbk., 367 pages
Source: Personal library.



  1. This sounds like a really thoughtful look at what ot means to grow up in communities with a tradition of unthinking racism and prejudice. I’m making a note of this, although it might not be easy to find here.


    • Yes, I imagine it’s not readily available there, but it is universally applicable, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

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