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.

It didn't take long for Daisy to replace her unsavory history with a past of her own making. She re-created in her imagination a childhood home, Blackburn writes, "a beautiful house" that was "built of big blocks of yellow stone with deep windows and doors wide enough for elephants and she places herself right at the top of the broad sweep of the main staircase. Standing there in her sky-blue dress she pulls in the sound of laughter, the smell of woodsmoke from the fireplace mixed with the sweet smell of tobacco from her father's pipe, the barking of dogs, a pool of sunlight on the floor."

Though Daisy painted an equally elegant world of wealth and society during her early years in Australia, the facts uncovered by Blackburn are that she arrived there in 1883, basically penniless, and worked as governess on a cattle station in North Queensland. Records show that in 1884 she was married by a Catholic priest to a stockman working at the same ranch. A month after the wedding he was thrown in jail for stealing pigs and a saddle. The couple separated after his release, and they never saw each other again.

Apparently Daisy didn't trouble herself with an official divorce. Eleven months later, in New South Wales, she married Jack Bates, this time declaring herself a Protestant and a spinster-a wise deception, since in Australia at the time bigamy was punishable by several years' imprisonment.

Two years later she gave birth to her only child, a boy for whom she felt as little affection as she by now felt for her second husband. In a birthday book of Bates', Blackburn discovered that the page marking the son's birthdate had simply been torn out. "Just as she invented things that never happened," writes Blackburn, "she could also destroy the evidence of things that did."

In 1894 Bates abruptly returned to England — giving a different reason for the trip to everyone who asked. "It was five years before she felt ready to return to Australia," writes Blackburn. When Bates did return she was deeply disappointed by her reunion with her son and husband. She abandoned both and persuaded a priest she had met on the boat to let her accompany him to his mission at Beagle Bay, a flat and desolate area of swamps and mud flats far to the north, where he worked with the Aborigines. It was there that she first met the people who would become her family, her people and her life.

Charming the right officials, she secured a government grant and established a rough camp on an Aboriginal reserve a few miles east of Perth. There Bates began a decades-long study of the language and customs of a people whose culture and land, she realized, were being destroyed by white settlers. "I thought," she wrote of her two years at the Maamba Reserve, "that once I had made enough notes then I would have an important book that would somehow save the people from annihilation and I would be their saviour." It was a dream she never let go.

Much of the book describes Bates' surreal life among the Aborigines, a life far from the fantasies of her fabricated upbringing. "Those ticks were revolting," she wrote about the blood-gorging insects infesting the area near one of her camps. "I once had a whole string of them black and shining around my waist, like a belt. I tried to get them off by scorching them with a stick taken from the fire but when that didn't work I had to wait until they were well-fed and ready to drop of their own accord."

She felt keen kinship with the Aborigines who appeared at her camps, "naked, smiling, glistening in the sunshine." She claims to have been initiated into the ceremonies of the men and to have been almost totally accepted. "They told me that in the Old Times I had been a man, a tribal elder . . ." Bates wrote. "I have seen them dancing, dying, making love, giving birth and I have never once been excluded from what was happening, never once made to feel like an outsider gazing into a forbidden territory."

When she set up a camp in a new location, the Aborigines would see the smoke from her fire and know that the strange white woman — in Edwardian dress with her pins and stays and high white collars — the one they called "Kabbarli, the Grandmother," was there. She would tend their wounds, share what little food she had, ask them the tales of their beginnings and write down all their words. There could be dozens camped around her for weeks. Then, one morning, she might wake and they'd be gone, sometimes leaving her without another human being to talk to for months.

Bates occasionally ventured back into the white world to present papers at government conferences, to argue for help for the Aborigines, once even to receive the Order of the Commander of the British Empire. "I am still not quite sure what powers of authority this gives me apart from being able to write CBE after my name," she noted at the time.

"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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