Anita Heiss, a proud Wiradjuri woman and acclaimed author of titles including Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, has crafted a masterful work of historical fiction that will echo with the reader long into the future.
The title translates from Wiradjuri into “river of dreams” and is a meditation on the power of the Marrambidya (Murrumbidgee River) in sustaining life, yet also taking it away. It is 1852 and Wagadhaany (“dancer”) is a strong and intelligent young woman who loves her family and Wiradjuri Country fiercely. She cherishes brief moments spent with her miyagan (“family”) when permitted to leave the home of colonial settlers, the Bradley family, and longs for the day she will not have to return to their servitude. But the destruction of the big flood of Gundagai results in Wagadhaany being drawn further away from her family under the Masters and Servants Act 1840. While her spirit is healed through the love of a Wiradjuri stockman, Yindyamarra, her heart continues to hear the call of home.
Heiss carefully weaves in the complexity of James Bradley’s wife Louisa, an English Quaker and unlikely friend to Wagadhaany. Louisa’s kindness and decency to Wagadhaany instantly sets her aside from the brutality of the Bradley brothers. However, as the book expands, we see how, for all Louisa’s good intentions, her blindness to her privilege and status only entrenches the disadvantage by those working for her husband. Does she believe Wagadhaany her equal, or weaponise her for a cause?
The book is accompanied by a glossary of Wiradjuri words, as well as historical notes about Quakers, the big flood, and overdue recognition for the First Nations heroes who saved dozens of lives in the long-ago disaster. A poetic and lyrically joyful work that sings from the page: an ode to the loves we lose and the loves that carry us through.
“Our ancestors are the original storytellers”: Blackfulla Bookclub celebrates Aboriginal voices and Aboriginal stories and is founded by Teela Reid and Merinda Dutton. Follow them on Instagram at @blackfulla_bookclub