DAISY BATES IN THE DESERT: One Woman's Life Among the Aborigines by Julia Blackburn

DAISY BATES IN THE DESERT: One Woman's Life Among the Aborigines

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An intriguing hybrid: part biography, part creative interrogation/reimagination of the life of an elusive Irishwoman who lived among the Aborigines in the Australian outback during the first half of the 20th century. How do you write a biography of a figure who relentlessly changed the facts of her life along the way, yet whose copious diary entries were full of intimate details about her sojourn among the Aborigines? Blackburn (The Emperor's Last Stand, not reviewed) attempts various literary and research stratagems -- chief among them being her admitting that it is impossible to know much with certainty: ""Daisy Bates was a liar, of that I am sure, but the extent and the exact details of her lies remain a difficult territory for which no good maps have survived."" As Blackburn's account of her attempt to uncover the facts about Bates gets interlaced with suppositions, false hints, and inconsistencies, the author more and more consciously identifies with her subject. We know Bates was given a government grant to study the Aborigines' customs, that she learned the language of the various totem clans, argued staunchly in the face of skeptics that they were cannibalistic, championed their rights to a large area undisturbed by whites, and lived with them in relative isolation for over 30 years. But even when the narrative goes from the first person of Blackburn as self-conscious biographer to the long central section in the reconstructed voice of Bates herself, we never learn too much about the relation of the Aborigines to Kabbarli (meaning grandmother), as Bates was called by them. Among the most fully pieced-together experiences are the ceremony in which she was made the ""Keeper of the Totems"" and the building of the transcontinental railroad through the Great Victoria Desert, which hastened the destruction of the land and the indigenous culture. A cryptic exploration into the avowedly subjective, murky terrain called biography, with occasional lyrical insights.

Pub Date: Aug. 17th, 1994
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Pantheon