Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss – Book Review

This is the first novel that has broken through my brain fog, courtesy of Covid, for quite some time

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (River of Dreams) is an epic story of love, loss and belonging.”

Set in 1852, the Marrambidya – what we know as the Murrumbidgee – floods through the newly established township of Gundagai, leaving death and destruction in its wake. The local indigenous had warned the colonists though this went unheeded. It is a stark reminder that while the river can give life, it can just as easily take it away.

Wagadhaany is a 13 year old Aboriginal lass and considered to be one of the lucky ones because she survives the flood and lives in a settler’s home as a domestic. When she is forced to move away from her “mob” her spirit is crushed despite forging a friendship of sorts with the new mistress of the house. Her heart slowly heals when she meets a Wiradyuri stockman and she dreams of escaping from servitude and returning to the river of her ancestors, though there is danger in escaping from the white man.

Beautifully written with a nod to indigenous language, the images of rural NSW with its flocks of noisy cockatoo and the swirling currents of the river and dry plains are almost lyrical. The ugly events of our past are covered, such as the massacres, payment to workers by way of rations, abuse and mistreatment of the women, and early days of mission life. It’s not pretty.

Wagadhaany’s partner takes their twin sons camping on their first “walkabout”
to learn many of the Indigenous ways and I felt as a reader that I too was being educated in bush craft. I will never again move a log with my hands until testing first with my feet ( in case of snakes)! I particularly enjoyed the lessons gained from looking at the night sky given my recent reading about Aboriginal Astronomy.

In Gundagai today there is a sculpture of Yarri (Wagadhaany’s father in the novel) and Jackey Jackey commemorating how many of the colonists were saved during the flood in those early days.

Though not an in-your-face, aggressive look-what-you-done look back at historical events which is so very prevalent in other recent publications, this story is no less forgiving. It in no way detracts from the appalling treatment that our Aboriginals suffered but rather confirms that you can ” catch more flys with honey than with vinegar”.

Great read!

About the Author

Anita Heiss (born 1968) is an Aboriginal Australian author, poet, cultural activist and social commentator. She is an advocate for Indigenous Australian literature and literacy, through her writing for adults and children and her membership of boards and committees.

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