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Review of 'Daisy Bates in the Desert: A Woman's Life Among the Aborigines'

Review of 'Daisy Bates in the Desert: A Woman's Life Among the Aborigines'

Daisy Bates in the Desert: A Woman's Life Among the Aborigines
Julia Blackburn
Pantheon Books

"There was once a woman who lived in the desert." So begins, almost like a children's story, the extraordinary biography of Daisy Bates, a woman of Irish birth who, in 1913 at the age of 54, wandered alone into the wilds of Australia. There she lived for nearly 30 years with only the Aborigines for regular companionship, a people she came to call "My People."

At times the book seems more autobiography than biography as, with an artful and almost imperceptible sleight of pen, Julia Blackburn, one of Britain's acclaimed biographers, changes chameleon-like from author to subject and back again. At the same time Blackburn shifts seamlessly between past and present, creating a work as brilliantly alive and mysterious as the Australian desert where Bates spent most of her later life.

In the end, one wonders: Is Daisy Bates in the Desert really nonfiction — or is it fiction disguised as biography? Indeed, from artist Hilary Mosberg's haunting, dreamy cover illustration of a smiling, attractive woman seated alone on a stool in the middle of the Australian outback, holding, inexplicably, a human skull in her lap, to the author's final words, there is a mystical quality to the book that defies easy classification.

To further blur the lines between fact and fiction, the author announces up front, "Daisy Bates was a liar, of that I am sure." Though she assures the reader that "some of what [Daisy] says is true," Blackburn concedes that "a great deal is not and it is such an odd process trying to separate the person who she was from the person she would have liked to be, pulling the two apart and untangling their embrace."

Where does that leave the reader? Blackburn reveals early on that she is going to slip into the persona of Bates, and she does it with the ease of stepping into a pair of well-worn slippers.

"Here she is, speaking," Blackburn writes, "and if she says more than maybe she ever did or could say in a real conversation, that is because I am allowing her to speak with her thoughts just as much as with her voice." Later she writes, "At times I might catch myself off-guard and read one of her notebooks as if it was one of my own." She admits Bates has "inhabited a small corner of my mind for so long that it can sometimes seem as if I must have met her, but have simply forgotten the circumstances of our meeting."

Through the author's eyes and voice, Bates' descriptions and tales are so vivid and powerful that the reader quickly stops wondering, or even caring, whether it all really happened and equally quickly stops questioning whether this is Daisy speaking now, or Julia Blackburn. What does it matter who wrote: "I am Kabbarli, the white-skinned grandmother. I am the Great White Queen of the Never-Never and I have come from the Land of the Dead to help my people in their hour of need. I am also a lady from a very good family, you can see that immediately of course, hear it in my voice."

Julia Blackburn gleaned the information for her portrait of this remarkable and unconventional woman from interviews with people who knew Daisy Bates; from her letters, her published articles, her book, The Passing of the Aborigines — and from her many notes "scribbled on paper bags, old railway timetables, and even scraps of newspaper." But, Blackburn again reminds the reader, "very little of what this strange woman tells about herself is true. For her there were no boundaries separating experience from imagination; she inhabited a world filled with events that could not have taken place, with people she had never met."

There are indisputable facts that the book builds on. Daisy May O'Dwyer did exist. She was born in Ireland, probably in 1860, the child of impoverished parents; her mother died when she was young, and her whisky-guzzling father ran off with another woman and died en route to America. Daisy was sent to an orphanage near Dublin. Attractive and well read, at age 18 she found work as a governess. A scandal in the household ensued; it's not elaborated upon but easily imagined. As a result, the young man of the house killed himself, and Daisy embarked upon her first voyage to Australia.

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