Her ancestor is often hailed as a great explorer and founder of the region, but on closer research, Cal Flyn discovered that her great-great-great Uncle was responsible for some of the worst massacres of the Aboriginals native to Gippsland. As an Australian, I've grown up acutely aware of the tensions that Australian history has caused. No matter what way you look at it, white settlers aren't painted in a nice light and even today the old wounds still find their way into day to day life. It's an uncomfortable topic and one that I knew I wasn't going to enjoy reading.
Cal Flyn traces her ancestor's voyage from Scotland through diaries that are available at a library in Australia. He was a pious and melancholy man who wrote about wanting to do good in his new life in Australia, so the author struggles to understand what happened to turn him into 'the butcher of Gippsland'. From historical records she traces the rising tensions between the white settlers and the Aboriginals and the reports of massacres of the tribes. The book was a real eye opener when it came to what really went on during this period.
For starters, one of the reasons that the white settlers felt entitled to take the land owned by the Aboriginals was that they couldn't find any structure to the tribes (no obvious leader, and due to their nomadic lifestyle, no real 'dwellings') and as they also didn't farm the land with crops and cattle (they hunted and gathered from natural resources and animals instead), the white settlers took it as they weren't civilized enough to 'own' the land and therefore it was ripe for the taking. This arrogance and lack of common sense really frustrated me.
Secondly, it was astonishing how much the media played a part in fueling the tensions. Newspapers would report on the 'savages' as though they were nothing better than animals, and would inflame ideas by reporting falsely or bias reports in their news pages. They even broadcast wild and unsubstantiated rumours that a white woman was being held captive by the 'savages' and thus fueled mobs of angry men to go out attacking Aboriginals to find her. I guess it kind of demonstrated that the media were launching a vendetta that drove the white settlers to their mob-like behaviour.
Although I felt strongly that the white settlers were wrong to act the way they did, I also felt myself becoming increasingly protective of Australia as I read the novel. Cal Flyn is Scottish and although she has this ancestor who emigrated to Australia, she isn't Australian, and therefore I found myself annoyed with some of her portrayals of modern day Australia and Australians. Her journey was about trying to understand why her ancestor did the things he did and then maybe make amends, but I still felt like she didn't portray Australians (modern day ones) in a great light. Yes, we have a shady past (name a country that doesn't), but there are still plenty of things to celebrate about Australia.
I wouldn't say that I enjoyed the book, but I did like reading it. It shocked me, troubled me and frustrated me, but I'm glad that I did read it. It made me interested in discovering more about the real history of my country (not just the light and fluffy version I was taught at school), and gave me a new appreciation for the efforts my country is going to to heal old wounds and make Aboriginals and white Australians feel like they can forgive, learn and move on.
I know the book was about tracing her ancestor's footsteps and finding out what happened but I sincerly hope that Cal Flyn didn't spend her whole time that she was in Australia visiting sites of past massacres. Australia is a beautiful, progressive country and I would hate to think that her view of us would be stuck in the past.
Title: Thicker Than Water
Author: Cal Flyn
Publisher: William Collins (an imprint of Harper Collins)