I read Tony Birch’s The White Girl in three days – once I started reading about grandmother, Odette, and her granddaughter, Sissy, I couldn’t put it down.
The White Girl is a warm, vivid portrayal of the Indigenous experience in the time of the Aborigines Protection Act, when Indigenous Australians were at the mercy of those given authority over their lives. They were forced to abide by laws that did not apply to white Australians, and lived in fear of losing their children to the system.
The book explores this powerlessness through the eyes of Odette, a grandmother who is determined to retain guardianship of her granddaughter. Sissy has been in the care of her grandmother since her mother, who suffered her own trauma at the hands of the white community, fled the fictional town of Deane where the three had lived together.
While the poor treatment of Indigenous Australians is at the centre of the book, it is also about themes of love, fear, power, family and hope. White Australians are not always the villains – Odette has a warm relationship with a white man who runs the local junkyard and is treated with respect and kindness by her Jewish doctor.
The strength and love of Odette for Sissy is a constant throughout the book, making the implications of a separation disastrous. A scene where Odette washes Sissy’s hair in a tub out the back of their house is particularly memorable.
In many ways, The White Girl was an uncomfortable read as Tony Birch recalls the racism of the Australia of the time, and the source of great trauma in Australia’s Indigenous community. However, it is told with hope and tenderness that, hopefully, reflects a better future.
Despite the dark issues in the book, I enjoyed reading about Odette and Sissy, and their struggle against a cruel and unfair system. Their relationship lightened the story, and provided a sense of hope. Birch writes with beauty and ease, making the difficult issues surprisingly accessible, and reminding readers of the past failings of white Australia, couched in a story not of hate, but of love and tenderness.