‘D’ya have any blackfella in ya?’ The skinny woman across the room looked directly at me.
So begins Patti Miller’s search under the bones of her ancestors in The Mind of a Thief. Part reflection, part local history and part analysis of the bitter ironies that abound in contemporary Aboriginal politics, Miller’s book quietly poses a loaded and complex question: what does it means to be native to Australia today?
More specifically, to be native to Marylands, the wheat and sheep farm near Wellington, New South Wales, where Patti Miller was born and raised in the middle of a large, poor but loving and hard-working Irish Catholic family. ‘I knew my geography,’ she says of the farm and the terrain around Wellington, ‘but I didn’t know the land these rivers flowed through was Wiradjuri. I hadn’t even heard the word.’
Only once, when she was a child walking with her father in a back paddock, did she find evidence of others before them: two stone axes, tools of the Wiradjuri who had lived there in the time before the words Marylands or whitefella had been heard of.
Decades after this silence, passed down from the ‘minds of thieves’, Miller discovers that the first post-Mabo Native Title claim was made by the Wiradjiri in the Wellington Valley, where:
Baiame came out of the sea in the east on his emu feet … It’s the most important place. It’s where the stories come from. That’s why I won’t let it go.
She keeps her promise. Miller patiently follows many lines of enquiry: from her possible blood connection to the Aboriginal side of town, to the colonial European and Irish squatters of her other ancestors, to the missionary journals of the 1830s, to reflections on her bittersweet relationships to the land, community and people of Wellington. But it is how these enquiries then branch out into the area’s Native Title fights that leads to the book’s surprising outcomes.
Miller’s narrative voice is curious but always aware of the impossibility of being neutral: ‘… my mind is European, the mind of a thief’. Miller was raised in the post-World War II era, a time that was torn culturally between a longing for connection to Mother Britain (the rejecting parent of the convict ships) and a maturing away from that rainy northern isle. In Australian homes were the gumnut tea towels by the Kooka stove, but down at the local state school was the portrait of young Elizabeth II and the Monday morning God Save the Queen. It was the time of the Cultural Cringe, where thoughtful ambitious children like Miller struggled to express and relate deeply to their unique time, place, families and circumstances.
Life was always happening elsewhere for Miller. She flees Wellington to graduate from university in Sydney, travels, raises a family in the Blue Mountains, establishes herself in Australian literary life, spends time in Paris teaching and writing. By midlife, the world has changed; she has thrown herself into the opportunities afforded by education and knows herself well. She is literally a woman of the world. Yet the departure of her adult children across a shrinking globe prompts within her a crisis of re-evaluation.
This time, instead of being pulled towards Europe, Miller has a powerful sense that she needs to double back to the land upon which she was raised. The ambivalence of her deep relationship to the Wellington Valley becomes the ground of her enquiries, turning again and again to questions of family, land, dispossession and legitimacy: the psychology of thievery from the point of view of outcasts fighting for survival.
Undertaken by a highly articulate writer in midlife, The Mind of a Thief is a muted, thoughtful journey of identity, part of the anxious white Australian search for belonging and authenticity that has underscored our culture since 1788. Miller even calls one of her chapters ‘Identity Terror’, which could serve as a subtitle for the book itself. But it’s not a heroic journey and Miller is no naïve protagonist, though on some levels she admits she knows very little. That is to her credit as a writer taking a long view, circling around a complex tale, with its ironies that sneak up on you and its uncertainties that demand we tolerate them long enough to think them over before reacting.
There are moments when the reader might prefer Miller to push a little harder: get to the bora ground, or triumphantly claim the Wiradjuri in her DNA, but these reversals of expectations prepare us for a more powerful reality: the sadness of the final chapters that leaves us wondering how the chain of human dispossession and thievery will continue to unfold into the stoic Australian landscape.
Patti Miller The Mind of a Thief UQP 2012 PB 265pp $29.95
Anna Maria Dell’oso is an author, journalist, and teacher of writing. Her book of short stories, Songs of the Suitcase (HarperCollins), won the Steele Rudd Award. Her fiction has been published in many anthologies and reviews including Meanjin and the Griffith Review.
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