Saltwater by Cathy McLennan


Reviewed by Terrie Ferman

It’s 1994 and twenty-two year old Cathy McLennan, newly graduated from law, goes to Townsville to work with indigenous legal aid. Her memoir, ‘Saltwater’, relates her experiences at that time. The book won the 2014 Queensland Literary Awards for Best Emerging Author.

McLennan’s clients are society’s marginalised, each burdened with disadvantage, poverty and alcoholism. Among all the cases that McLennan dealt with, it must have been a challenge to winnow them down to the handful that makes up this book. Her choices are powerful.

Straight into the job, McLennan has a murder case: four young people are charged with killing a man in the local cemetery. From the outset, she feels there’s something wrong with the police case and, raw and inexperienced as she is, she sets out to find the truth. She keeps us wondering what really happened until the very end.

The other main story is that of Olivia. This tragic little girl begins life as a victim of foetal alcohol syndrome. Parentally neglected, she becomes a repeat thief. Perhaps in response to the bond between Olivia and the author, we can’t help but warm to Olivia. We keep hoping things will get better for her. The social workers keep promising that they will.

McLennan experiences some shocks in her new environment. She is distressed and uncomprehending when she witnesses an incident of drunken Aboriginal people in a park where a baby is playing on the ground in reach of broken glass. McLennan picks the baby up, since no one else seems to be aware of the danger to the child. When she keeps asking why the baby can’t be taken to a safe place, rather than left in the park with a drunken mother, the Family Services Officer explains the current lack of Aboriginal foster families and the policy to put Aboriginal babies in ‘culturally appropriate homes’. ‘If we start putting black babies in white homes we’ll be accused of creating another stolen generation.’ The police officer present is clearly distressed, having kids of his own but the baby is handed back. ‘The powerlessness is oppressive.’

Amid the onerous demands of her job, McLennan had a nice man in her life. Michael’s presence surely provided some respite from the tragic cases she dealt with every day. For the reader, too, it gives some relief from being immersed in the constant challenges, occasional physical threats, and overwork that were the realities of the job. There are other up-beat people too: her office colleagues soldier on gamely though some new legal staff depart abruptly, overwhelmed by their clients’ situations. No one could blame them for leaving.

This is a very personal book without being an indulgent one. Though it is a memoir, it is not centrally about the author. The key players are her clients and McLennan is inevitably a big part of their stories. She seems able to establish a good rapport with the damaged people that she’s trying to help. Despite her passion and frustration, the author writes with an admirable degree of restraint. For instance, the baby-in-the- park incident is a good illustration of this. She avoids preaching to the reader, leaving us to work things out for ourselves.

The main part of this book relates a selection of the cases that McLennan handled and lets the stories speak for themselves. In ‘A note from the author’ at the end of book, McLennan speaks for herself. She is forthright about the book’s purpose: ‘to give a better understanding of the problems so real solutions can be found’ and they need to be found because, now, twenty years after these particular events happened, ‘there are children, right now, suffering and offending, still with no real help, no solutions’. It’s to be hoped that this absorbing memoir can contribute to creating solutions.

Terrie Ferman is a Brisbane writer.



By Cathy McLennan
ISBN 978-0-7022-5383-6
RRP $32.95; 328pp

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