Monday, December 26, 2011

Nanberry : Black Brother White

Black Brother White
Written by Jackie French
Published by HarperCollinsPublishers, Australia

It is the story of Nanberry, the 9yr old Eora (aborigine) boy whose life takes an unexpected turn when smallpox brought into Australia by the First Fleet carrying convicts wipes out almost his entire tribe. Surgeon John White, the fleet's surgeon, adopts him as a son, much to the chagrin of his housekeeper, who is surprised to realise that the 'native' is as much a human being as she is!

The rest of the book is a narrative told in the first person by the different characters.

John White, the surgeon of the First Fleet, and later at the newfound colony. A good man of strong convictions and a thirst for knowledge.

Rachel Turner, who survived a wrongly given death sentence and deportation to the convict colony. Who has rather genteel origins, and works as Surgeon White's housekeeper, and later becomes his emotional anchor and mother of his son, Andrew. Who later becomes one of the richest and well-loved women in Australia.

Nanberry himself- the black brother, who, blossoms under the love and care showered on him by his foster father Surgeon White, and Rachel, but is loath to relinquish his roots, and is unable to quite become the 'English gentleman' that his foster father wanted him to become. Especially after he finds himself a target of the other white people's prejudice.

Andrew White, the son, the white brother, who gets a privileged education in England, and becomes a hero in the battle against Napoleon.

Which, along with a handful more of characters, both English and Eora, makes for a kaleidoscope of emotions, motives, actions, stretching across a period of history from the first British settlement in Australia in 1788 to after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. A piece of history that is in many ways still taking a shape. We see the arrogance of the Europeans in their 'finders-keepers-owners' attitude which has shaped much of the history of colonisation. "Britain did not recognise the country as being inhabited as the natives did not cultivate the land, and were, therefore, 'uncivilized'. " We see the reasoning they used in their ruthless decimation of the original inhabitants of the Australian continent- the aborigines- and their relentless claiming of the land.

We see the utter bewilderment of the Eora who did not have the concept of  individual ownership of land and resources- through the voice of Nanberry Buckenau. Who, although fostered by an exceptionally enlightened man for his times, keeps his roots, and returns to his people and their ways from time to time. Even as a child, he refuses to answer to the English name given to him by his foster father, and responds only to his rightful name, Nanberry.

A piece of history that we know really took place, as there are written records of it. All the characters really lived, even Nanberry about whom there are records researched and listed in the bibliography by the author, Jackie French, whose book for children 'Diary of a Wombat' has been reviewed by me earlier. She traces her mother-in-law's ancestry back to the family into which one of Andrew White's daughters married.

In an extensive afterword, she says, "All history books are detective stories, and history writers must track down information and put it together exactly as a detective does....The events in this book are as true as I can make them. The first decades of the colony were an extraordinary and fascinating time. But there comes a point where a historian and author has to say, 'I don't know'. "

"Neither the English nor the Eora understood each other. In most cases, perhaps, they didn't want to...To me, now, Nanberry (Nanbree / Nanbaree in the records found) and Andrew White seem to be the first modern Australians, triumphantly accepting both sides of their heritage."

Image courtesy Crossposted.


ranjani.sathish said...

What a fantastic pick and a beautifully written review ! Thanks for this Sandhya..I so want to read it.

Just finished reading some fiction set in historical moments like "What the body remembers" set in the turbulent times of Partition and "Half of a Yellow sun" set in times of Nigerian Civil war. Very poignant stories and the similarities across strife torn nations are striking.

sathish said...

sounds lovely Sandhya. would look forward to pick this book.

sandhya said...

Thank, Ranjani and Satish. Would be glad to pass it on the next time we meet.:)

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