Warning: This post contains the names of deceased persons.
I am delighted to be involved in the ANZ LitLovers ‘2012 Indigenous Literature Week’, this review being my humble contribution.
I first read Dr Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World by Mudrooroo (Colin Johnson) around fifteen years ago and it left such an impression that when I heard about this Indigenous Literature Week initiative, I thought it would be great to revisit this historical novel.
There is controversy surrounding Mudrooroo’s Aboriginality but my understanding is that he strongly identifies as Aboriginal. I am far from an expert on Indigenous culture and not up with the modern politics of identification but, as the novel provides a searching critique of the prejudices of white history, I think it deserves a place in any study of Indigenous literature.
I have recommended this book to many people so I was relieved to find it just as entertaining and intriguing when I reread it. I guess it resonates strongly with me because it is set in Tasmania where I grew up and my Island home is at once familiar and like a foreign land, when seen through the eyes of Wooreddy.
Wooreddy’s homeland is Bruny Island: ‘two craggy fists of land connected by a narrow twisting of murky water’ (1) but, as he learns by surreptitiously listening to his elders, the ending of the world has begun, precipitated by the first sighting of the ships carting the ghost-like ‘num’ (white people). The boy Wooreddy knows that he will live on to witness the end.
Through Dr Wooreddy’s eyes, Mudrooroo shows us the store of knowledge and the level of intelligence required under an oral culture. The narrative turns the idea of a superior literate culture on its head and the white colonisers are left looking simplistic and barbaric compared to the indigenous land owners.
The school syllabus of the sixties and seventies was not big on local history and there was a dearth of information about Tasmania’s indigenous population. I do remember one history class that touched – ever so briefly – on the name of the ‘last Tasmanian Aborigine’ – Trugannini’. It seems ironic that no attempt was made to alert students to the various spellings and pronunciation variations of her name and, in fact, Trugernanna is considered more likely to be phonetically correct.
By all accounts, Trugernanna was a beauty who enjoyed the limelight. The daughter of Mangana witnesses the kidnapping of her sisters and relays the news to her father: ‘Three ghosts came rowing into the bay. They took first and second sister away’ (11). Despite this, Trugernanna seems to adapt well to the European ways.
Through Trugernanna’s reliance on the num and in particular on George Robinson, we see the power shift from her father and her husband to the Chief Protector.
Trugernanna’s father is representative of the alienation and despair of the indigenous peoples, consequent to the num invasion, described in passages like these:-
+Mangana looked across and smiled, not a smile of greeting but one of resignation…
+Mangana seemed to have become all grey – his hair, his beard even his skin was grey…
+In reply to sentences he usually grunted or muttered a single word or strung words together in meaningless sentences…
+Mangana was too listless to play the role of both father and mother, or even just the father…
Known to many of the aborigines as ‘Fader’, Meeter Ro-bin-un is a bumbling fool of a ‘ghost’ and yet it is clear to Wooreddy that he holds some power over other ghosts so the Doctor is initially elated to find ‘a protector and also a subject of study’ (31).
White history recounts George Augustus Robertson as either:-
a) Conceited, ignorant and incompetent
b) A petty crook
c) A humane and well-intentioned public servant
Mudrooroo’s novel casts him in a completely different light and it is interesting to compare the Meeter Rob-in-un in the book to the written historical records of the man and his actions.
The good doctor is a complex character with clear ideas and goals. He is best summed up by this reaction to his first sighting of the ships:
Another boy would have turned tail or collapsed in a quivering heap of shock, but Wooreddy had been born for such sights. He watched the fog patches shift as they tugged the tiny dark island along. Such visions were rare and set a person apart. (3)
The writing is evocative and powerful. Here, Mangana speaks to Wooreddy of his daughter:-
Trugernanna, an ocean girl, a sea girl, a lover of ghosts. A ghost girl, a pale girl, she will live on longer than all of us. Go and eat her food, go and love her loveless body, go and share whatever she will offer. You and she are both foolish enough to want life. (38)
The story ends as we know it will but there are surprises along the way, as we come to grips with the bewilderment experienced by the native Tasmanians while understanding the hidden strength that accompanies them through to the ‘Ending of the World’.
Nyoongah, Mudrooroo (Colin Johnson). Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World, Hyland House Publishing, Flemington, Victoria, 1983.
ISBN: 0 94702062 02 5