Freedom Ride by Sue Lawson (Black Dog Books, 2015) made the Shortlist for CBCA Book of The Year for Older Readers. I enjoyed Freedom Ride but I had some issues with Sue Lawson’s narrative choices and wanted to discuss them separately to my review of the book.

When reading Freedom Ride I was surprised protagonist Robbie was white and the actual Freedom Ride only had a small part in the story towards the end. The book highlighted very well the appalling history of our treatment of Indigenous Australians in recent memory. Prior to reading I heard mention of the historical Freedom Ride but knew little about it. I learnt a lot from reading the book and subsequently reading more of the history. I also discovered the 1967 referendum did not give Aboriginal people the vote, this was legislated in 1962. It horrifies me how recently Aboriginal people were not allowed a voice in their governing, and that there’s still so much inequality for Indigenous Australians.

Some Indigenous writers believe white people should not write from an indigenous POV and there are certainly examples of white authors doing this badly. As a white person I’ve read first person indigenous characters written by white people (Justine Larbalestier comes to mind) which I think are well written. If I was black I might find problems I miss coming from a place of white privilege.

Debbie Reese is an academic who critiques children’s books from an American Indigenous perspective. Recently on twitter Daniel José Older talked about why she is not bullying, attacking or advocating censorship.

I agree her analysis is vital. I’ve rarely read the books she discusses, but I can transfer the ideas she brings up to Australian books with indigenous characters that I have read. Thinking about our prejudices, unintentional or otherwise, is always a good thing. Reading Ellen Oh’s thoughts on Eleanor & Park enlightened me to ideas about Rainbow Rowell’s Asian characters I hadn’t considered.

I remember when Kate Grenville wrote The Secret River there was discussion of her depiction of Aboriginal characters. She said she felt uncertain enlarging on these characters because she was not Indigenous. Her main character is an 1800s English man, something she’s never experienced, but was happy to write from this perspective.

This is never an excuse to write one-dimensional characters, whether the protagonist or minor parts. Some of the Aborigines in Freedom Ride were very fleeting, due to Lawson’s choice to concentrate on white characters. Micky had an important role in explaining his life to Robbie, but it almost seemed this was his reason for being. I wanted more of Micky, and thought this was happening when they went fishing together. The fishing trip was the most we saw of Micky. If Robbie had visited his home and family or attended the funeral of an important character. This death was another way to further the white story. I think the death and the issues it brought up could have be written differently.

Basically, we need more well written Indigenous characters, more Indigenous writers and illustrators, and more Indigenous publishers like Magabala Books, publisher of this beautiful picture book Once there was a Boy by Dub Leffler.

Once there was a boy by Dub Leffler