Review: The Girl from the Great Sandy Desert
Sometimes it’s the small stories that matter the most. Like what happens when a child growing up in the north-western Australian desert eats too many of a certain type of insect and her blind mother sits with her all day, comforting her until she feels better.
Pat Lowe met Walmajarri woman, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, while living in Broom in the Kimberly region of Western Australia. Jukna, shared many of her childhood stories with Pat, and the two of them collaborated on a children’s book, The Girl from the Great Sandy Desert.
The session featured Pat Lowe; the book’s illustrator, Mervyn Street; and Jukna’s son, David Chuguna.
What makes Jukna’s childhood so exceptional is that her family were some of the last Walmajarri hunter-gatherers to grow up pre-contact. Jukna eventually came out of the desert to live on a cattle station because she was unwell with kidney disease.
As with many personal stories, it’s the fabric of everyday living that makes them engrossing. Pat describes Jukna’s anecdotes as tales of ‘daily life’ rather than ‘social organisation’ and it’s a child’s world view of Walmajarri desert life not filtered through anthropologists. Mervyn’s sensitive ink and wash illustrations are an interpretation of this life from an artist that, while not brought up in the Great Sandy Desert – Mervyn is a river man – has family who were.
Before reading, Pat and David delved into some of the aspects of traditional Walmajarri life, the defining one being, of course, the eternal search for water. Pat told a story about artist Jimmy Pike, a childhood friend of Jukuna’s, being taken up into a helicopter. Despite never having seen the desert from the air before, he was able to guide the pilot to exactly where he needed to land. ‘You couldn’t, said Pat, ‘be walking around a desert hoping you find water – you know.’ This knowledge is still held by elder Walmajarri, and David still knows where the jila or waterholes of his parents can be found.
The waterholes also formed the centrepiece of the first story Pat read. Mana’s (the fictionalised name of the child in the book), grandmother told her of seeing non-Aboriginal people, kartiya, at one of their water holes. Mana remembered asking her grandmother what they were like and being told that they were ‘just like us but a different colour’. Afraid to go near it, the family waited until the kartiya had finished drinking and then went down, but the water hole was empty. The kartiya had killed the spirit snake and destroyed the jila.
First contact is, for some Aboriginal people, still a thing of living memory and Mervyn Street explained that he was 15 when he saw his first European. It can he hard to remember that the Girl from the Great Sandy Desert tells stories of recent history which, as Pat pointed out, makes the adaptations the people who moved to stations and cities made, extraordinary.
One of the recurring motifs in Mana’s stories is the closeness and love of the family unit. This was heartbreakingly illustrated in the story of Mana’s father’s second wife – Mana’s ‘blind mother’, who insisted that she was left behind after the death of her fourth child. Mana recalled with terrible detail the harrowing grief of family members who hit themselves with boomerangs until they bled.
Mana’s may have been a cultural experience far removed from the lives of western and even many contemporary Aboriginal readers, but her stories reveal her to be a typical (although extremely observant) little girl, whose story of nurturing an orphan puppy and loving it to distraction is as universal as any Shakespeare play.
Jukuna Mona Chuguna’s people started drifting away from their traditional lives as they went to work on cattle stations in the latter half of the 20th century, but connection with the Walmajarri lands is still strong and David is a ranger in the places his mother grew up. When asked by an audience member if the younger generation were learning the ways of their ancestors, David explained that that was what he did now – taking the next generation into the desert and teaching them the culture and the stories, though some things – like knowing where to find jila – are harder to pass on in a changed world.
This session with Pat, David and Mervyn, demonstrated just how much a culture is defined and shared by narrative. The stories of those who have gone before can serve as an inspiration for a new generation’s desert stories as well as a bridge of understanding to children in the rest of Australia and the world.
Katie Haworth is a children’s book editor and writer from New Zealand who now lives in London.