This

Life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - By Rod Holi­han

IT was an old blue hard­cover. There was some­thing vel­vety about the edg­ing; the cor­ners of the cover were a bit rolled in but the bind­ing was in­tact.

It just lay on the lit­tle stack of draw­ers be­side the bed and it never oc­curred to my 10-year-old brain that it had been placed there, planted like a seed, by my grand­fa­ther.

I had re­cently fin­ished read­ing The Coral Is­land by RM Bal­lan­tyne and read­ing was a new de­light. So I picked up the blue book and was im­me­di­ately en­thralled to see it was about Amer­i­can In­di­ans. I had seen them at Satur­day af­ter­noon ses­sions at the lo­cal cin­ema and with my friends I had fought them off as they cir­cled our imag­i­nary wag­ons. They were wild for­eign war­riors with strange harsh rit­u­als, coura­geous, but al­ways to be de­feated.

In my child­ish way, I had never thought of them as in­di­vid­u­als with ideas and lives other than as ad­juncts to our child­ishly bru­tal games.

The book did not have the usual pic­to­rial rep­re­sen­ta­tions, the cartoon-like red­dish fig­ures on horse­back with flow­ing feathered head­dresses and bows and ar­rows.

In­stead there were his­tor­i­cal pho­to­graphs, beau­ti­ful black-and-white im­ages of stern men with swarthy skin, un­smil­ing as they sat on the ground amid te­pees with camp­fires burn­ing. They were in­trigu­ing and im­pres­sive.

To un­der­stand the pres­ence of this book, I must speak of my grand­fa­ther.

He was a self-em­ployed pic­ture framer, a jour­ney­man of skill and knowl­edge. He told me how he shaped the ele­phant ear cor­ners of the frames, how to cut a cir­cle in two move­ments. I ad­mired the smooth­ness of the walls he had plas­tered when he added ex­ten­sions to his house. He could whis­tle two tunes at once. And he was a so­cial­ist.

‘‘Never work for a boss,’’ he would tell me. ‘‘USSR stands for Union of Soviet So­cial­ist Re­publics and ev­ery­one there has a job.’’

He had raised a fam­ily dur­ing the De­pres­sion. He de­spised Bob Men­zies. He had a gar­den, fruit trees, chooks and a fish­ing boat. He knew how to hold his tongue and in­stead of ar­gu­ing with the adults he liked to plant seeds with the chil­dren.

Hence the book at my bed­side when I went to stay with him and gran. It was only many years later that I made that con­nec­tion.

So I started read­ing the blue book. I have no idea of the ti­tle or the author but this was a book that changed my un­der­stand­ing of the world and di­rected my views.

It was the first step on a long jour­ney that would take me, like my grand­fa­ther, be­yond the well-worn paths and into a fringe land, a lonely but pure place that has its own bram­bles, bogs and de­ceits but also a frag­ile hope. For this was a book of truth. It was a cold re­al­ity. The blue book told the story of what had ac­tu­ally hap­pened to the In­di­ans when the Eu­ro­peans came to Amer­ica.

As I was later to learn, this was a stereo­typed event that oc­curred world­wide.

For a 10-year-old boy it was a shock. But the thing I re­mem­ber most was not the bat­tles, the de­pri­va­tions, the mas­sacres, the marches and the bro­ken treaties. It was the stoic dig­nity, the courage, the un­de­ni­able sim­ple wis­dom of so many of the In­dian lead­ers.

What was truly mem­o­rable was the con­trast this made with the Eu­ro­peans and their greed and ruth­less lies.

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