Recently this 2011 book came to my notice by way of ANZ LitLovers LitBlog and having read Lisa's review as well as Sue's review at Whispering Gums, decided I would read it. July 2-9 is NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week and ANZ LitLovers is celebrating with Indigenous Literature Week. What good fortune this was for me: this is a terrific read and raised my spirits considerably.
The author tells the story of a girl much like herself growing up with her Aboriginal grandmother and two Aunties (Boo and Bubby). Her grandfather who died before she had much memory of him, was a white farmer. The narrator''s mother was the youngest of their children, Petal, who was spoiled by her older sisters and never was good about sticking around. She left home at 17 and came back only to have her babies, Sunshine (the narrator) and Star.
Sunshine only learned how different her life was from others when she went to school. She didn't have the "right" answers to questions the teacher asked. When asked when she went to bed, she said, "I don't go to bed, Miss Chapel, I jus' fall asleep." When asked about the number of dogs she had, she said, "Two big dogs an' five little ones, Miss Chapel. An' there's cats an' sheep too." In bad weather the sheep slept in the house. Auntie Boo often found sickly lambs and brought them home for Aunty Bubby to nurse to health. They used the wool to make sweaters, but never killed them for meat.
When Petal and the girls' father Dinny took the girls to live in Queensland with his Catholic family, the Aunties knew this would not last. Sunny overheard Dinny's parents' conversation:
'She's not a full-blood, Paddy drawled, 'She's got some white in her. Looks to me like she's less than half Abo. And the kids, you can hardly tell. One of them even looks a bit like our Dinny in the face.'
'What! Have you taken leave of your senses? Even one drop is too much. She's lazy and useless, and vain and surly.'
Not long after Sunny asks her mother what an Abo is, they go home.
The Aunties had worked as domestics for white farmers. Aunty Boo had read to an older woman in the family she worked for when the woman could no longer read. This way Auntie Boo read philosophers and learned about the Punic Wars and paid close attention to the tactics of Roman women in the exercise of power. When Sunny lamented being different from everyone else, Auntie Boo said,
'Hey, Epictetus told a good story about being' different.' She paused and took a long whistling breath. She could switch from home talk to flash talk when she wanted to. 'When Epictetus' mates told him he should be more like everyone else, he came back real smart like an' said to 'em, Because you consider yourself to be only one thread of those that are on a toga it is fitting that you take care how you should be like the rest of men, just as the thread has no design to be anything superior to other threads. But I wish to be purple, that small part which is bright and makes everything else graceful and beautiful. Why then do you tell me to make myself like many? And if I do, how shall I still be purple?'
Sunny was not convinced, but Auntie Boo told her she was born to be purple. And black too. It was the warmth of the family life in that household, as well as the tone of taking life as it came their way that won my enthusiasm.
Jeanine Leane is a Wiradjuri woman who grew up in the area of southwest New South Wales near Gundagai. She is a poet, teacher, and an academic.
Jeanine Leane, Purple Threads, University of Queensland Press, 2011, 169 pages (I read the kindle version). Only available in print from Amazon.