Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (Simon and Schuster 2021) by Dr Anita Heiss is such a beautiful book to hold in your hands, with embossed artwork, and the English translation of the title – River of Dreams – on the back cover. This genre-bending novel is a tale of heroism based on true events, an historical account of a natural disaster, a glimpse into Australian black/white relations in the 1800’s, a family drama and a romance.
This is a simple, engaging story that reveals complex layers of themes such as racism, feminism, misogyny, female friendship, ambition, greed, environmentalism, belonging and loss. Written with the inclusion of much First Nations language, the book is testament to the wisdom and knowledge of the original inhabitants of this country, an indictment of the colonial invaders who ignored that knowledge at their peril, and a demonstration of the strong connections between Aboriginal people and their country, their totems and their Dreamtime.
Set in Gundagai and then Wagga Wagga around 1852, the inciting event is the flooding of the Murrumbidgee River, a reminder that nature is powerful, and that while the river is life-giving and necessary, it can also sweep away flora, fauna and people too when it swells with flood. For local girl Wagadhaany, the event brings many changes, because although she survives the floods and her father is a hero who saves many of the local white people, it results in her being obliged to move with her white employers to another town, miles away from her family and her people. Although her name means ‘dancer’, she has no desire to dance and no-one to dance for; she is sick with sadness over her grief and loss of the place she has always called home.
When she meets Wiradyuri stockman Yindyamarra, her heart begins to heal, and their slowly blossoming romance is one of the highlights of this story. But as the years go by, she never stops longing for her ancestral home, for the company of her extended family and the familiarity of her country.
Part of this book’s achievement is that the author maintains a fine balance with all the characters in that they are nuanced and believable. While it is never in doubt that the white people have stolen land and treated the Aboriginal people poorly, some of the white characters do have redeeming characteristics. Some of them mean well, even if their actions don’t follow suit. Some of them have lofty ideals and notions of ‘helping’ Aboriginal people, but their ideas are misguided and usually turn out to be more of a hindrance than a help. In this way, the book is a thoughtful exploration of the shades of grey in all of us, and how damage and trauma can be the result not only of direct ill-will, but also of misunderstandings and miscommunications.
In all of these complex examinations of human behaviour, what shines through is Heiss’ generosity of spirit; while she is an avid proponent of First Nations culture, history and language, she also recognises the subtleties of race relations. Most importantly, this book pays homage to those real-life heroes of the Gundagai floods – the Black men who risked their own lives to save the lives of their oppressors. That is the poignancy, the generosity, the kindness that fills this novel with heart.