Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
The loss of her identity and its roots in her cultural heritage did not prevent Dianne O’Brien from rising above the trauma of her early years of life. She has become highly regarded for her work with struggling and disadvantaged people. Dianne, and those like her, hold the key to our First Nations people securing their rightful place in Australian life.
These unflinching details of her harrowing early years were gladdened only by her loving adopted mother, who sadly died when Dianne was fourteen, and her six children for whom she sacrificed her own safety and happiness.
Born in 1946, she was adopted by an Irish couple at a time when government policy deprived young mothers, particularly Aboriginal, of their babies. They were deemed unfit for the role by society as well.
In a harrowing and, at times, horrific journey, Dianne tells in her honest, matter-of-fact manner subsequent liaisons with men who were violent drunkards. While they were occasionally made bearable by flashes of kindness, even charm, they inflicted abuse beginning with her adopted father, then his friend Colin. Keith, Michael and Robert followed.
Her childhood friend, Brian, shocked her with his attempted rape. Robert, and later Don, were mostly decent men but became monsters when they drank.
Amazingly, she survived the cruel insensitive father but staggers into the multiple toxic relationships. Regulations at the time when Debbie, her first baby at 14, was born, dictated she be married or else surrender her baby for adoption. Desperately, she chose marriage, and so began her life of nightmarish suffering.
At times the cruelty was unimaginable. Michael deliberately crushed her daughter’s little dog with his car. In hospital, after another baby’s birth, he brought her a ham sandwich, having slaughtered her pet piglet. Physical violence was a constant.
By nature a gentle loving woman, her chronicle of domestic violence indicates the then prevailing attitude of both the police and society. ‘Chastising’ a wife was sanctioned. Neighbours ignored the signs, reluctant to intervene, wary of such male aggression.
It is incredible that Dianne managed to survive to become a valued contributor to her community and to anyone in need, or in dire circumstances. She grasped every opportunity that gave her the skills and knowledge to do this. To highlight appreciation of this, her image is projected on the Town Hall at Surry Hills, in Sydney, every NAIDOC week.
Naturally, she longed to discover her biological mother. When she was 38, this happened. Although disappointed, she is pleased to learn that she was not unwanted and was forced to be given away to the O’Briens.
She is extremely proud. Not just of her 6 children (two now tragically dead), 34 grandchildren and 56 great grandchildren, but of her discovery that she is a Yorta Yorta woman. William Cooper, who agitated tirelessly for Aboriginal rights, was Yorta Yorta. As early as 1937, he petitioned for a Voice to Parliament and was thwarted by the government of the day.
Daughter of the River Country is an important book. That cannot be exaggerated. People need to come to some understanding of the courage, resilience, (apologies for this much overused word) and near insurmountable difficulties she and others faced.
Injustice and ignorance brought cruel and horrific circumstances, and our First Australians have endured all this. Despite this, they aim to reach out, contribute and share knowledge and thus improve life for us all.
For this reason, this painfully confronting story of a brave child of the river country must be read by everyone who cares to have a just and fairer Australia.
Daughter of the River Country
by Dianne O’Brien
ISBN 978 17606 8657 4