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'

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"I knew I had to be careful," she writes via Blackburn, "how I made the transition between the black and the white world. It has to be done in stages, like a diver in one of those metal capsules who is slowly pulled up out of the depths of the sea, pausing as he adjusts to the different weight of the air around him."

Her longest sojourn was at Ooldea, a lonely place in the middle of the treeless Nullarbor Plain of South Australia where her beloved Aborigines faced the greatest challenges to the life they once knew: the missionaries who wanted to convert them, and the new railroad that eventually stretched across Australia from coast to coast.

For reasons Daisy never understood, "the Line," as the transcontinental railroad was called, attracted hordes of wandering Aborigines. "I lit fires to send signals to the new arrivals so that they came to me first and I could prepare them in some way for the changes they would have to confront . . . but I could never persuade them to return to the places they had come from. They were all hypnotised by the metal snake."

Daisy hated the train for what it did to her people: turning them into beggars and prostitutes, as they hung around the Line being corrupted by what she called the "low whites" who worked for the railroad. "My People. When you see them walking naked out of the desert they appear like kings and queens, princes and princesses, but standing barefoot on the edge of the railway track, dressed in stiff and stinking clothes, black hands held out to receive charity from white hands, then they are nothing more than derelicts, rubbish, that will soon be pushed to one side and removed. My poor people, how will they manage once Kabbarli has gone?" She never doubted she was the only means of their salvation.

Though few places on Earth are as bleak as Ooldea, where Bates camped alone for 16 of her outback years, she found beauty all around her. "Sometimes a cloud of white cockatoos falls out of the sky and lands on me as if I was a tree laden with fruit," she says. Lizards were her favorite creatures. "I . . . had a bicycle lizard who . . . became so tame that he would creep up onto my lap and sit there, basking and catching flies."

Every day she felt compelled to push on with her attempt to document the Aborigines' language and their myths, even as the sand slowly crept behind her eyelids to ravage her eyesight. "There are still hundreds and hundreds of words that I have to write down because if I don't do it they will be gone forever. I hate to think of words being lost like that, cut away from the things they are tied to, evaporating into silence." Later, she described one of her Aborigine women who, she says matter-of-factly, was "a prostitute along the Line . . . and when she gave birth to a half-caste she killed him and ate him."

At the age of 76, Bates left the "bleak, hot, red hills of Ooldea . . . a place where she once knew a contentment she could not know anywhere else," for Adelaide, and ultimately published her book, The Passing of the Aborigines. She was never happy in the cities, though, and clung to her dream of returning to Ooldea. "Then," she foolishly believed, "her people would be happy to resume the old life and would forget about the trains and the Line."

"There is no station here now, no platform, no buildings" at Ooldea, Blackburn writes, "nothing that makes this into a place at all except for the strange memorial to Mrs. Bates, looking like a post box that has lost its human purpose and has been left stranded in this enormous landscape." "1860-1951" reads the inscription. "Daisy Bates devoted her life here and elsewhere to the welfare of the Australian Aboriginals."

Daisy says it better. "I never failed them, no, not for one hour of my time with them. . . . I always wanted the whole of my life with them." Truths, half-truths and fabulous lies — it's a life worth reading about.

Per Ola and Emily d'Aulaire write from their home in Connecticut.


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