AUSTRALIAN HISTORY - OZ FOR KIDS
Oz for Kids
The Story of Australia
0 17 006349 6
Australian Book Review, Dec/Jan 1984, pp. 10-11.
“By the 1960s, Australians had
forgotten a lot of their own history. It was often said that Australian
history was too short to be history at all. Nothing very important had
happened in Australia. At school, Australians learnt a lot of English
history, and when they did learn Australian history at secondary school,
it was called British history anyway.” With those sentences, Don
Watson opens a chapter called “Pictures of Australia”. His book aims
at overcoming this neglect. The result is real history, not the
“history-less history” of school curricula. Change and conflict
Women do better than in almost every
general history book for any age group. Elizabeth Macarthur gets her due
as the founder of the fine fleece industry. There is Mungo woman from
25,000 years ago. I would have preferred Mum Shirl to Daisy Bates, yet
in presenting the latter, the point is well made about the limits of
white charity. Could we not have had Mary Gilmore in place of William
Lane, and a nun instead of Caroline Chisholm again? Anne Summers is
listed on the front page as a consultant. The publisher’s blurb
mentions all three male consultants but omits Summers.
The liveliest passages are those that
present us with life as the felt experiences of football, farming and
radio. The smells of Collingwood in the nineteenth century are
marvellously evoked. There should have been much more sensuous human
activity and less politics.
The sections on Aborigines are
excellent at demonstrating that pre-historic Australia was not
“timeless”. Change was the order of the millennium. These chapters
also destroy the notion of one kind of Aborigine. We read of desert,
river and island peoples.
Accounts of exploration could have
noted that Aborigines got everywhere first. Watson headlines: “Captain
Cook did not discover Australia”. Neither did Ch’eng Ho, the
Portuguese or the Dutch. Nor were Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth the
first people to cross the Blue Mountains. Since Watson’s aim is to
lead readers into new ways of thinking, these conventional accounts of
exploration could have been shaken harder.
A pen portrait of Namatjira stops
short of mentioning the ways in which Aboriginal art is being used today
by the Aborigines and the whites, here and abroad.
Race relations is a continuing theme
in Watson’s story, and rightly so. In the wake of Blainey, I wonder
whether telling potential racists that their grandparents were racists
will do much good. There needs to be more than exposure. What more?
With so many advantages at the
starting post, it is sad to tell that this children’s history is off
track. The continuing difficulty is its failure to decide upon its
audience. Is the book addressed to parents or to kids? To children of
what age? Are they reading it, or having it read and explained to them?
Are they at home or in class? In trying to cover all possible markets,
the publishers have got a book for parents to read at each other while
children watch the videos.
Sentences, especially those in the
opening sections, are not only too long but, like this one, have, for
children, too complex a structure. The words chosen can be recondite,
for example, eunuch and caravel. Terms are not always explained.
“Treadmill” is dropped into a sentence but is neither illustrated
nor described. Elsewhere, the reader learns that “A white feather was
a way of saying ‘Coward’.” There could have been a lot more of
that kind of quiet defining.
Children need precise instances. Even
when Watson’s sentences are short and his words simple, his account is
often abstracted. Too little of the material is related from a child’s
point of view.
The time lines are the worst feature.
They are full of scholar’s facts that will not interest parents, let
alone children. These lines also make the book look more like a school
text than it is. They do nothing to simulate the young reader to explore
the facts for themselves.
The layout of double-page spreads is
dull. The commissioned illustrations are off-putting; they look like an
adult’s view of what a lively textbook might contain. Archival sources
provide two of my favourite images: the cartoon of women immigrants as
butterflies and a photograph of a camel laden with a crate market
If the authorial voice were more
surely in tune with a child’s ear, factual and interpretative wobbles
would be less worrying.
Take the instance of television. Like
many commentators, Don Watson assumes that because telecasts began in
1956 that year marks the start of the TV era. In fact, the spread was
staggered in Melbourne and Sydney; there were no channels in Brisbane or
Adelaide until late 1959. Rural coverage took longer. Television is a
part of the 1960s, not the 1950s. Watson’s notion of 1956 at the start
of television highlights the book’s bias towards Victoria.
Without doubt, Don Watson’s The Story of Australia is better than everything else available.
Good intentions have not been enough to realise all its aims for