Thursday, 29 May 2008

The Little Black Princess

This week for our Literature read alouds we have been reading the Australian children's classic, The Little Black Princess by Mrs Aeneas Gunn. Also known as Jeannie Taylor, the author wrote the book after the year she spent with her husband on a remote cattle station in the Northern Territory in 1902. Mrs Aeneas Gunn is also famous for her novel for adults, We of the Never-Never.

From the Publisher's preface: "It must have been a frightening experience for the thirty-year old bride to leave the city and travel the vast distance to the Roper River where she found herself living on a property so large that the front gate was forty-five miles from the house and so remote that the mail was delivered only eight times each year.
But Mrs Gunn appears to have accepted this difficult way of life and to have taken a great interest in the Aborigines with whom she came in contact. ... Compared to those around her, Mrs Gunn appears to have had a great love for the Aborigines and a respect for their way of life."

There are 13 chapters in this book, plus a chapter-length collection of letters from Mrs Gunn, excerpted for the anecdotes they contained relating to Bett-Bett, the little black princess of the title, an orphaned Aboriginal girl fostered by Mrs Gunn who later became the matriarch of the Bonson clan. According to my dad, a descendent of Bett-Bett, Matthew Bonson, is currently a member of the Northern Territory parliament.

Here is one incident from chapter 10, with a few of my added vocabulary explanations in square brackets, for those who are unfamiliar with Australianisms and Aboriginal pidgin English:
Bett-Bett and I very often went down to the billabong [a landlocked section of a river] for an early morning bogey [swim], and she and the lubras [Aboriginal women and older girls] were always greatly amused at my bathing-gown. They called it "that one bogey dress", and said it was "silly fellow".

My swimming also amused them. They saw something very comical and unnatural in my movements, and I often caught them imitating me. They seemed to expect me to sink every moment, and never went very far from me in case of accidents.

One morning, we swam right across the billabong to the "nuzzer side", as Bett-Bett called it; and, there, I noticed a man's tracks on the bank, and asked whose they were; for, of course, I did not recognise them. To my surprise, the lubras burst into shrieks of laughter.

"Him Maluka!" they shouted in delight! "Him track belonga Maluka; him bin bogey last night."

Then, Bett-Bett screamed to the lubras on the opposite bank, "Missus no more savey [recognise/know/understand] track belonga boss."

It was the best joke they had ever heard - a woman who did not know her own husband's tracks! I felt very small indeed, and as soon as possible, went back to the house and breakfast.

We have only a few more chapters to go, and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this book with the kids so far. There is a lot of discussion in it about Aboriginal Dreaming stories of the Roper River people, which has neccessitated some explaining with the kids, and my rusty pidgin English accent is getting a work out. I am enjoying the way Mrs Gunn has carefully related the knowledge, conversation and activities of the people she spent her days with. Mrs Gunn certainly had an eye and ear for detail and a keen interest in the way of life of the local Aboriginal people. Her book gives a fascinating insight into the turn of the century lives of the traditionally nomadic Aboriginal people who were faced with the changes brought by the new culture of white station life. I think if Charlotte Mason were to read it, she would definitely classify The Little Black Princess as a "living book".

This book is a great way to come face-to-face with Australian history.


Mrs. Edwards said...

Sounds wonderful. Do you have any suggestions for buying this book in America? We begin the next school year studying the year 1900--this would be a great summer read.

This brings to mind a very foggy memory from my youth in the eighties. I seem to recall a movie about a very similar topic. Was this made into a film? Or did it inspire a fiction film?

Thanks for the tip!

Mrs. Edwards said...

Sorry to be a bother...I do see a "special condensed edition" available from used book websites. Is this what you are reading? Or do you have an older, unabridged copy?

I'm guessing the latter since it doesn't appear to be combined with "We of the Never Never". Could you tell which edition you have and comment if you think the "special condensed" edition is worth it?

Thanks again for the tip!

mom24 said...

Well it's peaked mt interest! Sounds to me like a 'living' book and a great one to be reading to your kids!

Sharon said...

Mrs Edwards, a search of the ISBN of my copy (which I got from my library which had several different copies) led to this link:

It is available in the US through abebooks:

We of the Never-Never was definitely made into a movie - I've seen part of it when I've stayed at Mataranka Hot Springs which is one of my family's favourite holiday destinations in the Northern Territory - and just happens to be very near to the Roper River cattle station where the Mrs Gunn lived. Sorry, but I can't remember much of it at all.

If you can get a copy that includes We of the Never-Never as well that would be great but I would hesitate to get a condensed or abridged version. Two reasons: the first is that any modern editor is likely to cut parts which they feel are too racist or elitist or whatever in the books' portrayal of Aboriginal people, and I think Mrs Gunn actually did a fantastic job of finding out from the people themselves what they believed and thought and she obviously watched them carefully to see what they did and how they did it. I think she was a very careful and balanced anthropologist, despite the reality of her actually "just" being a cattle station owner's wife.

Secondly, I think an abridgement is likely to miss or alter much of the pidgin English conversations which, to my mind, give the book much of it's charm and sense of reality. As you can see from the short passage I quoted, Mrs Gunn has rendered the speech of the people as she heard it. unlike in some books (such as Wuthering Heights) where the slang is so obtuse that you need copious footnotes to understand even the slightest thing, I think you can probably understand the gist of what they are talking about without that. I had no problems. Of course, I grew up in Australia and taught for several years in a school in the NT with many of my classes being made up of ESL Aboriginal students from traditional communities. You could always ask me here on my blog for a translation if you couldn't work it out for yourself!

I think I'll look for We of the Never-Never next time I'm at the library and I'll let you know what I think of that.

~ Sharon

Mrs. Edwards said...

Thanks, Sharon. I ordered it! I've been on the look out for summer read-alouds, so I'm pretty tickled to stumble across something new.

This is our convention weekend and when I asked the used bookseller there about the book, she hadn't heard of it. It is no doubt more well known in Australia. I'm sure you hit the nail on the head--the modern ear might cringe at the dialect and other elements. That's too bad. That is probably why it doesn't live on (at least on my continent) in reprints.

Thanks, I enjoy keeping up with your blog.
Spurring one another one,

Sharon said...

Mrs Edwards,

I just finished The Little Black Princess today and I thought you might like to be pre-warned to read chapter 11 yourself before reading it to your kids. It contains a fairly detailed description of the fate of the king of the Roper River tribe, who was "sung deadfellow" by having the bone pointed at him. This was a traditional practice whereby a person was cursed and soon died (Mrs Gunn describes it as "faith killing" rather than "faith healing"). Mrs Gunn cared for the king in his last days when he was forsaken by his tribe who were afraid of having the curse passed on to them.

Older children would probably cope with this chapter and be fascinated but mine are a little young. I found the chapter interesting myself, but I didn't think it would be a good idea to read it to my kids. I can just imagine Joshua playing at "pointing the bone" at his sisters every chance he gets for the next three weeks and all the recriminations and reprisals coming from that. So I skipped it and they're none the wiser.

~ Sharon

Mrs. Edwards said...

Thanks again for this tip, Sharon. My copy of the book arrived in the mail today and we eagerly (okay, I eagerly) gathered around in our family room to read aloud from "The Little Black Princess."

We read straight through the first five chapters before we were forced to stop for bedtime. I think the kids were hooked from the moment little Bett-Bett hid in the river with only her mouth and nose peeking above the surface, fearing the enemy tribe more than the crocs in the river! The kids were hanging on every word there for a bit.

Now, if only we could have a tete-a-tete and you could give me pointers on pronunciation!

Blessings to you-
Mrs. Edwards

Mrs. Edwards said...

We finished the book and loved it. To cap off our time in the Never Never we watched the film "We of the Never Never." It was rated G and family friendly, although it is a bit sad at the end.

I couldn't resist sharing our experiences in a post on my blog, Veritas at Home, so I hope you'll find my words a tribute to you! Imitation is the finest form of flattery, they say!


Sharon said...

Sorry I didn't warn you about the sad bit of the movie, as you know that isn't in The Little Black Princess. It seems a shame that a woman with such a lovely heart for living and working among Aboriginal people was unable to stay in her "Never Never". I am so glad you enjoyed it and will head over to your blog now to see what you have written.
~ Sharon