Allen & Unwin, 2015
280pp., pbk., RRP $A29.99
In 1988 Australia marked the bicentennial of European settlement and one of the stand-out, enduring legacies of that time was the magnificent My Place by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins in which the history of our nation over those 200 years was viewed through the lens of the children who lived in each decade in a particular house in Sydney. It is a seminal piece of work that is used to this day in the study of Australian history by young students, having been complemented with a television series, websites and a host of units of work. Its key point of difference from a lot of other texts at the time which also explored our history was that by looking at the past through the eyes of the children who were the age of its target audience, Wheatley made history accessible and meaningful for the age group. They could relate to what happened by comparing it with their own lives.
In Australians All Wheatley has taken a similar approach. Beginning in the Ice Age when the Law held the balance in the land and through the forming of the rocks and soil, through the making of mountains and the rivers, it held, through to the Apology to the Stolen Generation in 2008, Wheatley has stayed true to her belief that “story is everything”. This is not some dry tome with facts and figures and grainy pictures – through the telling of the stories of the time, amplified by the inclusion of 80 mini-biographies of real people who were there. They are the stories of the children and the youth whose tales are rarely told – the “passive accessories” to the actions and decisions of the adults around them – and they are the stories of the children who became adults and changed the nation’s philosophies and direction because of the impact on them of those actions and decisions. For example, with many of our students in single parent or blended families, the stories of the fate of Amy Currie after the death of her mother and the younger Facey children whose father had left for the Kalgoorlie goldfield s in a desperate attempt to support his family bring the real life and times alive and will give pause for thought about why we have the support systems we do today.
Using just one or two pages to explore each topic, Wheatley gives the reader not only the essential information they need so we are not left overwhelmed or confused, but it is written in a conversational tone that engages and reflects.
For example, on p137 under the heading ‘Being an Australian’ she asks “So what is an Australian?” and after giving some of the characteristics we associate with us, she then points out the stark definition given by The Bulletin at the turn of the 20th century when Federation and nationalism were ablaze. The Bulletin declared, “By the term Australian we mean…all white men who come to these shores with a clean record”. As Wheatley then points out, over 50% of the population were excluded because women, children, and the Aboriginal and Chinese peoples were ignored, and with the phrase “with a clean record” it denied our convict heritage on which our traits of egalitarianism and a fair go are founded. This is followed by the stories of Bill Morrow, the Facey family, Amy Currie and Charles Swancott Just one page could be the starting point for an investigation of what it means to be Australian in 2016, the key changes that brought us to where we are, and, in conjunction with the publication of Armin Greder’s Australia to z (Allen & Unwin, 2016) there are riches indeed. For not only are we asked who are we and where have we come from, but we are confronted with “Are we going back there?”
Richly illustrated throughout by Ken Searle with the inclusion of a range of complementary photos, accompanied by fascinating thumbnail sketches of what happened to those whose stories are featured, a glossary, index and bibliography, this is a must in the collection for Year 5 upwards that all teachers should be aware of so they can enrich and enhance their curriculum with real stories and real people. Perhaps students could pick a period and investigate the life of a child in that time, writing in the mini-biography style of the book or they could add another chapter of what the life of a child of 2016 is like. Much has changed in eight short years…
Released and reviewed in perfect timing for the new school year, Australians All puts the story in history bringing to life what we should know about this nation’s past (even if it is confronting) so we can march into the future with understanding, confidence and hope.