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.