I don’t know why I’ve never read Sue Lawson. I remember her books from when I worked in libraries, and I never tried any because I thought historical fiction is boring.
“Do you really think…?” I searched for the right words. “Will it work? Blacks and whites together?”
“Can’t see why not, and I reckon it’s past time we tried.”
I was so wrong! My book group did Freedom Ride this week and Sue Lawson’s writing is a feast of delicacies. I know why it was long-listed for the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year for Older Readers 2016.
The story is based on events of the 1965 Freedom Ride when a bus of University of Sydney students travelled around country NSW to see living conditions in Aboriginal communities. Sue Lawson created the fictional town of Walgaree and changed some events and dates, but many are close to the actual events. The bus being run off the road and the incidents at the Walgaree RSL and the swimming pool all happened at various towns during the 1965 Freedom Ride.
The main character Robbie is white and has never talked to an Aboriginal person due to the segregation in his small town. During the summer holidays Robbie gets a job at the caravan park and meets co-worker Micky, an Aboriginal boy. Robbie worries he might say the wrong thing because he doesn’t know how to talk to Aboriginal people. He soon learns it’s the same as talking to anyone. Sadly Robbie’s family and friends never realise this and continue their bigoted ways.
I thought of Micky – there was nothing useless or dirty or stupid about him. He was funny and worked hard. He was smart too. Actually, he was just, well, normal. And that man on the television, Charles Perkins, spoke better than half of Walgaree.
When townsfolk and visitors to the caravan park see Micky working alongside his white boss Barry and Robbie, tourists cut short their holidays and store keepers cancel accounts for the caravan park. Despite this, Barry refuses to back down and Micky keeps his job. When the Freedom Ride passes through Walgaree Barry puts them up in on-site vans, further enraging the townsfolk.
The bigotry of Walgaree’s residents shocked and horrified me. I know we were rascist, Aboriginal people weren’t allowed to vote until the 1960s, but I never thought about the details of our racism. Aboriginal children went to different schools, pubs had a separate bar for black people (often at the back door), and they had to wait in shops to be served after white people, or were refused entry. Living conditions were appalling, which was highlighted to all Australians by the news stories Freedom Ride participants posted in February 1965.
“The houses there are shacks, just tin and timber leaning against each other.” He shuddered. “And you know what is the worst thing? This.” He nodded to the river and looked past it to the paddocks and gum trees. “This is our land. Our place. It’s…” His voice trailed away, as though he couldn’t see the point in saying more.
When the school bully says to Micky, “Got more right to be here than you,” the irony sizzled. He meant at the river where only whites are allowed to swim, but he encompasses all white people who have never had more right to be here than Australia’s Indigenous first peoples. Micky often uses humour to cover the worst of the racism he lives with. He jokes to Robbie that he’s never seen a shower, Robbie in his ignorance thinks he’s serious.
While these history changing events run their course, Robbie has other problems. His home life is harsh, loveless and he misses the mother he never knew; his friends are hanging out with the school bully who Robbie can’t stand; and a tragedy befalls Micky’s family just as Robbie becomes his friend.
I felt as though I was bound tight with rubber bands. I wanted to push against the binding, to break free. But I couldn’t.
The historical Freedom Ride occurs near the end of the story, which confused me, I expected this to be the bulk of the novel. At my book group I found out the title also refers to Robbie’s journey from ignorant young boy to discovering more about the world, the people he thought he knew, and the lies he grew up with.
In theory things have improved for Aboriginal Australians in the last 50 years, but many still experience extreme disadvantage.
Many of my fellow book-groupers are teachers (or former teachers) and have worked in rural or remote areas and talked about their Aboriginal students. I discovered Gaye taught the Goonack kids from the Mitchell Plateau who illustrated Scaly-Tailed Possum and Echidna, one of my fav Magabala picture books.
Kovo the new cat enjoyed Freedom Ride too. He purred the whole way through.