People of the River by Grace Karskens

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Almost seven hundred pages face the reader of Professor Grace Karskens’s latest book People of the River. This is a masterpiece of historical writing that deals with the lost worlds of early Australia (as she calls them). Karskens bases her text on the Hawkesbury and Nepean Rivers areas, where she identifies two early Australias, one ancient, one modern, each colliding with the other. She takes us into both the lost worlds of the Aboriginal people and the creation of the world of the white settlers of this land, showing us, in the process, a complex indigenous world with ancient roots.

This is much more than a story that details the lives of aboriginal people whose traditional way of life butts up against intransigent, insensitive white settlers. It is a story of a river that thrills, with imagery that is immaculate in the calmness of its beauty and unspeakably ugly in its silent witnessing of human massacres. Grace Karskens’s prose never wavers. It has an ability to excite and to calm, to cause to dream and to imagine, to succumb to thrill and to weeping. The only thing it cannot do is leave the reader untouched.

The book begins with a couple of eye-catching maps and an introduction in which Karskens gives her readers a sample of the marriage of sterile fact with imaginative writing that is to greet, and excite them, as they face page after page throughout the book. She writes,

Sometime in the summer of 1793 – 4, a small group of people…appeared on Dyarubbin, the river. They made for Dowlaba, in the crook of the tributary stream Wianamatta, where the huge broad-bellied eucalypts stood far apart, and the dense viny undergrowth covering most of the river’s banks opened out clear and grassy (1).

(Translations of the aboriginal words are provided).

This passage is particularly significant. Part 1 of the book relates to the aeons that the landscape and its First Peoples have spent together. The First Peoples are the witnesses to the appearance of white settlers on Dyarubbin, Dowlaba and Wianamatta. Part II tells of contact and crossings represented in the passage (above) by the arrival of that small group. Part III has a focus on the land – its forests and clearings as represented by the eucalypts and, in particular, by the dense viny undergrowth (above). The chapter describes farming in the bush, the floods and flood-mindedness hinted at in the opening out of the river banks. Then comes Part IV, a big chapter in both senses. It is called People of the River – the watchers and the visitors in the passage above.

An argument is always present in Karskens’s text. The shock, disruption and violence of invasion and dispossession are real events and they live in the author’s mind. Their impacts on a very different society were momentous. But Karskens asks about the outcomes for the aborigines and reveals that “Dyarubbin’s camping places and sacred sites, the great rapids and tributary creeks, remained their focal places…they adapted to the presence and habits of settlers but they also continued as far as possible to do as they had always done” (216), clear proof that the argument that Australian aborigines were overtaken and made insignificant because they could not adjust, is nothing like correct.

One of the most useful parts of this book is the artwork that appears at pages 82 and 406. Influential figures mix with landscapes, aboriginal weapons, shrubs, views of the river, household animals, and bird life in various media fronting page 82. Watercolours make an historical record beyond imagination. Facing page 406 is a record of white settlement and examples of white-black struggles for control. Several pictures are photographs.

The book has an epilogue. Karskens writes:

There’s a stone obelisk at the old Sackville Aboriginal Reserve on Dyarubbin…There is a sense of quiet reverence about it – this tall, solitary monument, dark with age, like a gravestone. But perhaps more striking is the giant old fig tree nearby, its fantastically interwoven roots wrapped over a massive rectangular rock (521).

She goes on to claim that the obelisk is about the metaphorical death of a race on the Hawkesbury in the early 1950s. “It is a local, late echo of the old settler certainty that the Aboriginal people were destined to die out and would vanish from this earth” (522).

Karskens writes with deep feeling and, given her affinity with the aboriginal race in the Hawkesbury region, it is a firm tribute to her scholarship that her writing remains balanced throughout this hefty book. She concludes her study with a final one hundred and fifty pages devoted to appendices, acknowledgments, abbreviations, notes, bibliography and index. All material is handled at a level of care that a true professional will produce.

People of the River

(2020)

By Grace Karskens

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978-1-76029-223-2

$39.99; 688 pp

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