Outside Country: Histories of Inland Australia edited by Alan Mayne and Stephen Atkinson, 360 pp, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2011, ISBN 9781862549609, $34.95.
Outside Country makes a compelling case for telling the history of inland Australia. Its strength lies in its attention to ‘everyday lives’ and ‘ordinary’ people. While it gestures towards a grander purpose – Alan Mayne, for example, describes a role for such histories in ‘informing debates about important and complicated issues for the nation’s future’ (p. 2) – it is the untold stories within untold stories that hold this book together and make it so enjoyable to read. Making a virtue of ‘small scale’ stories that exhibit the ‘human touch’, this collection ‘acknowledges disappointments and hardships, the mistakes and the ugly events, as well as things that elicit respect and pride’. It is a ‘history to learn from’ (p. 4) in more ways than one.
Reflecting the complexity of the region, the topics covered in this collection are diverse, from Jodi Frawley’s intriguing discussion of Dr Jean White and the Prickly Pear Experimental Station at Dulacca (on the western Darling Downs in Queensland) to Raelene Frances’ fascinating exploration of cameleers and sex-workers in Kalgoorlie. Ruth Ford utilises a wonderfully rich set of letters by settler women in the Victorian Mallee to tell a complex story of hope and optimism in difficult circumstances. Heather Goodall reflects on the entanglement of culture and history at two highly significant Aboriginal sites on the upper Darling system: Boobera Lagoon, near Boggabilla on the MacIntyre, and the native fisheries at Brewarrina. Documenting cultures in the process of change, Goodall’s chapter challenges legalistic interpretations of culture as static and unchanging. Rick Hosking analyses South Australian historical pioneering novels, Lionel Frost considers the expansion of railway systems into the interior and Jenny Gregory closely examines the mobile lives of residents of Kurrawang, a small town in southern Western Australia that was completely relocated in 1938. Charley Fahey follows the fortunes of a migratory mining family and, in a second essay, explores the history of the Australian family farm. Essays by Keir Reeves and Christopher MacDonald on Cradle Valley in Tasmania, Fiona Davis and Patricia Grimshaw on Cummeragunja Aboriginal reserve, and Erik Eklund on memory and identity in Broken Hill and Mount Isa round out the collection.
‘Indigenous wellbeing’ is highlighted as one of four issues the book addresses (along with ‘gender equality’, ‘cultural pluralism’ and ‘ecological sustainability’), however only two of the book’s 17 chapters (four of which are introductions by Mayne, and one of which is an afterword by Atkinson) deal in any substantial way with Indigenous issues. Of these, only Goodall’s chapter is about the ‘Outside Country’; the other, on Cummeragunja, is about a place that – according the editors’ own map (p. 7) – is not part of the inland corridor that comprises Australia’s ‘Outside Country’. While Davis and Grimshaw present an interesting account of social life at the troubled reserve, enlivened by Davis’ oral history research, they struggle to make it fit with the collection’s main themes. Given the increasing number of researchers working on Aboriginal history topics across Inland Australia, I have to question its inclusion. Yet, overall, the collection more than achieves its purpose: by relaying the mysterious lives of men and women of inland Australia, by exploring the perception, meaning and experience of isolation, this book forces readers to re-imagine the Centre.
The Australian National University