Reviewed by Ian Lipke
It is such a pleasure to read a book that is beautifully presented while, at the same time, reaches the grand heights of scholarship. Written in the tradition of the Black is Beautiful movement (though not as crass and uncouth as the coverage on television), this book supplies an accurate portrayal of indigenous people and their unwilting stamina before the depredations of white administrators.
Overwhelming every other purpose is McKenna’s desire to sing the song of Uluru. Nobody could have done it better, with descriptions of beauty that leave images never likely to be forgotten, and a gift for word selection and sentences that sparkle as they describe. McKenna’s prose leaves the reader breathless. His descriptions of vandalism done to Uluru itself, the practice of throwing water to make images in the rock more distinct for tourists’ cameras, of bathing in soapy water in unspoiled mountain streams, and other unconscionable acts are graphic pieces that most readers would prefer not to hear about.
The book has no Preface, merely a Contents page so that we are given no direction as to what the writer intends. The book leaps straight into Part One, Looking for the Centre, in which we read generalised descriptions, accompanied by beautiful photographs. The section ends with the information that the term ‘Anangu’ is the name of a tribe that lived at Uluru, and who figure prominently in the following pages. “It was here, in 1934, that European’s awareness of Uluru’s sacred significance emerged in tandem with the gruesome reality of White Australia’s incursion into Central Australia” (25).
But the book is not only about Uluru. It is about the indigenous people, the Anangu, who have the misfortune to be subject to the administration of a policeman called Constable William McKinnon, and men like him.
Part Two of the book is called Lawman. For the next ninety-four pages we read the biography and the exploits of this brute of a man who excelled in cruelty in the form of tying his prisoners to trees, to bashing and whipping his captives, and shooting them until eventually he was charged with murder, tried, but against the odds, acquitted. He appears to have met a kindred soul in Doreen Taylor, who became his wife in 1934, who proudly announced that she had to bash a dog’s head in with an axe because it had got amongst the chickens. What justice is there when a writer such as Frank Clune can, with a clear conscience, glorify him as one of the last great men of Central Australia. The story of William McKinnon takes up all of Part Two.
Part Three requires a change of pace and an escape from the bloodiness of the preceding part. McKenna is aware of this and introduces the new section with the charming Aboriginal myth, The Kuniya and Liru Story. The focus is back where it belongs with the Anangu. McKenna re-invests the McKinnon story with information supplied by aboriginal people who knew more about the man’s exploits than the police enquiry, but I had had enough of this particular policeman and took more from the story of Uluru’s return to governance by the resident tribes.
Return to Uluru is informative, gruesome, and like the old frontier days, upsetting. But it is more than those things. The poetry of its language and the portrayal of a beautiful land, lift this book above the ordinary.
By Mark McKenna
$34.99; 272 pp