31. ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’ by Doris Pilkington.

Rabbit Proof Fence
Firstly, massive apologies to all my followers for the looooong wait between reviews! As many of you know, I work full time in primary education, and the start of the first term back after the long summer holidays is always absolutely exhausting, plus I am working hard on growing my little online side hustle…there are never sufficient hours in a day, really! I have also been rewarding myself with short reads from a fabulous book of Mum’s, a compilation of the 100 best short stories ever, which is highly engaging and somewhat controversial in its selection…but is taking me an age to get through, it’s a hefty volume! Excuses aside though, here I am with my thoughts about a slim yet deeply moving and issue raising narrative non fiction book, Doris Pilkington’s ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’.
Ms Pilkington is the daughter of one of the protagonists in this book, the half caste Aboriginal girl, Molly. The book recounts the forcible removal of Molly and two other girls from their families to a Native Settlement, their subsequent escape, and their long walk home following the rabbit proof fence. Shortest summary ever for a book that touches on so many sensitive issues. And the author herself was taken from her mother at the age of four and sent to the Moore River Settlement, only being reunited with her mother over twenty years later.
In the opening chapters, Ms Pilkington gives us an account of the initial interactions between the Aborigines and the first white settlers, and on through to the 1930’s when the incidents related in it occurred. Then things get much more specific, and she recounts, almost as if from a distance, the astonishing story of her mother and her aunt’s epic walk to freedom, as told to her by her mother.
I think this book is well worthy of reading purely because, with no fuss, it recounts the story of what happened to so many mixed race children in Australia. The assumption was made that the children of white fathers and Aboriginal mothers would be better off being removed from the ‘natives’ and raised in camps to be trained as domestic servants and so on – it’s important to note, not to be educated as white children were. The idea, inconceivable though it now seems, was to ‘assimilate’ them into white society, marry them to other half castes and eventually ‘breed’ them into white people. This continued in some parts of Australia into the 1970’s, and is often referred to now as the Stolen Generation. It is absolutely tragic, the more so because so many of the white men who fathered these children, enabled it.
Despite their families trying to keep them out of sight and thus safe from being taken, the girls were found and taken south in July 1931. Interestingly, in August 1930, a year earlier, the Government official responsible for the removal of mixed race children in that area, which had been assumed to be good for them as the pure blood natives rejected the half castes just as much as their white fathers generally did, wrote that the children ‘lean more towards the black than the white and on second thoughts, nothing would be gained in removing them’. A blinding flash of intuition for its time – nothing more than common sense to us today, when we understand that despite teasing or bullying because they are ‘different’, children are much better off staying with their own families as far as possible.
In this case, Molly, who was 15, and the two girls, Gracie aged 11 and Daisy aged 9 who were taken with her in 1931, manage to escape the camp after only a short time there, grisly place that it is, and although they had been taken down the coast by sea, she knows that the rabbit proof fence follows a north-south axis, and that if they find it and follow it north, they must arrive eventually home at Jigalong, from where they left, as it is on the fence.
The rabbit proof fence incidentally is another example of the white mans folly in Australia – the early colonists brought over rabbits amongst other things, initially to breed for meat, but then released to provide a ‘spot of hunting’. In the absence of significant natural predators, and with the warmth of Australia allowing them to breed year round, they ran absolutely riot across the land (a bit like the white man did). An attempt to stop rabbits invading Western Australia from the Eastern States was made by building a supposedly rabbit proof fence that ran between Starvation Bay near Esperance on the south coast up to Ninety Mile Beach, east of Port Hedland, effectively cutting off the bottom left hand side of Australia. 1,139 miles of flimsy barbed wire fencing – it failed to stop the rabbits, but provided a lifeline for these girls.
They did better than most kids their age these days would, surviving a thousand mile trek through the harsh Australian bush, feeding themselves on bush tucker and food they scrounged from homesteads, being careful to arrive and leave said homesteads and farms from different directions to avoid being retaken.
I shan’t give away the ending. I believe this is a book that should be read by all Australian school children certainly. The movie was an OK adaptation, but for me it is the matter of fact tone of the book that drives home the bloody awfulness of the truth. After years of campaigning, by the 1990’s things were changing, but even as of today,  Australian Aborigines are mostly still living in far worse conditions and with a much lower life expectancy than white Australians.
In 2000, Phillip Knightley summed up the Stolen Generations in these terms:

This cannot be over-emphasized—the Australian government literally kidnapped these children from their parents as a matter of policy. White welfare officers, often supported by police, would descend on Aboriginal camps, round up all the children, separate the ones with light-coloured skin, bundle them into trucks and take them away. If their parents protested they were held at bay by police.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stolen_Generations
I recommend reading the Wikipedia article above to learn more about the Stolen Generation. And although John Howard may not have found it in himself to apologise for his predecessors actions, I am genuinely sorry that this happened, not only to these three girls, but the countless others who were lost forever by their families, as was my Mum, who after reading this in 2005 rang me up to see if it was all a bit exaggerated ( I lived in Australia between 1985 and 2012). I was so sad to have to tell her, no, it’s all true.
It’s not a depressing read, for all that the subject matter is appalling. There is a great deal of humanity within its pages, and I recommend it to you all. I have Mum’s copy here which I should love to gift forward to someone – please contact me through here or on the Facebook page, Mums Books, if you’d like it, and in case it has already been claimed, here is a link to Amazon to purchase it for yourself.

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30. ‘When God was a Rabbit’ by Sarah Winman.

Firstly I have to confess that this is not one of Mum’s books – instead, it is one that my sister Debi mentioned she was reading recently on the Mums Books Facebook page, and that I coincidentally saw a copy of in a charity shop later that same day. Simply had to buy and read it! And very glad I did. Mum would certainly have read and enjoyed this as much as Debi and I did.

This is Sarah Winman’s first published work, and it is excellent. Perhaps even more resonant for those of us who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies in the UK, painting as it does an exquisite portrait of the way we lived. The narrator is Elly, the rabbit is a Belgian hare given to her by her brother Joe that sometimes talks to her. Elly and Joe’s parents are decidedly off beat, becoming even more so when they win the football pools and move from Essex to Cornwall, which separates Elly from her first real friend, the equally strange Jenny Penny.

As the story unfolds we meet more oddities, and what wonderful characterisation from Ms. Winman – these people feel real! It is a darkly comical read from start to finish, and no end of awful things happen to the characters. The rabbit is Joe’s gift to Elly after she reveals to him that she has been sexually abused by their elderly Jewish neighbour, who claims to have been a concentration camp survivor but in fact draws numbers on his arm with a felt tip – and eventually commits suicide. Jenny Penny ends up in prison after killing her abusive husband. Joe’s first love is kidnapped and has an ear cut off in Beirut.

And yet, it is above all else a story about love, relationships, and trust. From her childhood and into her adult life, the book looks at Elly’s relationships with those around her with a wry and whimsical eye. Catastrophes unfold, new characters appear, and even the ‘bit players’, such as some of the bed and breakfast guests, are beautifully drawn.

I found this hard to put down! But, all good things must come to an end…and now as usual, I’m ready to gift this forward! So, if you would like ‘When God was a Rabbit’, please get in touch either here or through the Facebook page …

https://www.facebook.com/mumsbooks

and I shall be delighted to send it to you! If it has already been claimed, here’s an Amazon link to purchase a copy….

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29.’Sapiens’ by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari.

My third son arrived for a flying visit from Australia this weekend, my second son who is currently living in the UK came to stay as well, and we had an absolutely wonderful time hanging out together! What’s that got to do with a book? Well, Tom arrived bearing with him this non fiction book which he had read on the plane and recommending it highly…I began reading his copy, and then, (he was perusing the bookshelves full of Mum’s books,) it turned out Mum had a copy too, a hardback. I’m not at all surprised, its a great, thought provoking, eye opening kind of a book, and enthralling enough that I did another ‘marathon’ read, not moving until I’d finished it! It was especially enjoyable having Tom to discuss it with as well, since he had only just finished it. Always enhances the pleasure of a good read, having a fellow reader to talk about it with, it’s something I shall always miss about sharing books with Mum.

The subtitle is ‘A Brief History of Humankind’, and Dr. Harari does indeed condense hundreds of thousands of years into about 400 pages, dividing our history into four main sections – the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, the Unification of Humankind, and finally, the Scientific Revolution. He opens with a big question – why did we, Homo Sapiens, become the dominant ‘human’ species of the many versions of us that existed in pre-history? To quote the inside cover,

How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations, and human rights; to trust books, money and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, consumerism and the pursuit of happiness?’

It is fascinating material, and Dr. Harari has used it to produce a well researched and thought out volume addressing the pro’s and con’s of each step we took as a race along the way. As an example, we tend to think that the agricultural revolution was a massive step forward for the human race – Dr. Harari argues convincingly that the average persons diet actually significantly decreased in nutritional value as a result – when we were hunter gatherers, we ate a wide range of foods, rather than becoming dependent on a single cultivated staple, rice for example. I immediately thought of the potato famines in Ireland – those poor souls would certainly have been better off foraging and hunting in the way our ancestors did.

I remember reading a book called The Human Animal by Desmond Morris years ago, (another volume I highly recommend), which addressed from an anthropological perspective the way we consider ourselves to be somehow superior to all other forms of life on Earth – this is a similarly ‘disinterested’ analysis of who we are, where we have come from, and where we might be heading, equally significant and worthy of reading. It closes with an afterword aptly headed ‘The Animal that became a God’; making the point very strongly that for all our so called advances, we have not necessarily improved the well being of our fellow ‘humans’, and have managed in the process to cause immense misery and suffering to other animals, and potentially destroyed the eco system of our beautiful planet. Minor stuff that we often ignore in our relentless pursuit of happiness. Personally I have often thought that we should strive for contentment, not happiness, but that’s another topic entirely.

I have a strong suspicion that Mum didn’t actually read this book, but listened to it on Radio 4 and as a result considered it worthy of addition to her library, since she has not initialled the inside cover with the date of reading. I certainly believe it is one of those books that genuinely gives one cause to stop, think, and learn from, something that never hurts.

Dr Harari offers a free course related to this book, it’s available on Youtube, link below. And, as always, I’m gifting this book forward to anyone who would like to read it – please simply get in touch below or through the Facebook page –

https://www.facebook.com/mumsbooks/

– and I will send it to you with much love. And if it has already been claimed but you would like a copy, there is also a link to Amazon below!

Much love, Becky X

Link to the Youtube videos…

Link to purchase on Amazon…

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28. ‘A God in Ruins’ by Kate Atkinson.

Thank you, Mum! This is literally the best book I have read so far this year, I picked it up at random from the shelf, sat down to have a quick look at it with a cup of tea, and finished it in one uninterrupted and unexpected five hour binge session, (the Mr had to go and buy fish and chips for supper again!) I laughed and wept, and was completely and utterly enthralled! Enough of a recommendation? It should be. This is a work by a novelist completely on top of her game.

A God in Ruins is the companion book to Ms Atkinson’s previous work, Life after Life, which I have not read but certainly intend to, however it is a stand alone book; you don’t have to have read the previous one at all to enjoy it – as I said, I haven’t yet. It tells the story of Teddy Todd as he negotiates the twentieth century after miraculously surviving the Second World War as a Halifax bomber pilot. As the blurb on the back says, ‘his greatest challenge will be to face living in a future he never thought he would have’.

Teddy is so likeable. He tries so hard to do the right thing, vows to himself that if he survives, he will live a kind and thoughtful life, and he does. He marries his childhood sweetheart, becomes a teacher and then a journalist, does everything possible for his, shall we say, difficult daughter Viola, loves his wife in a steady, dependable way. But his life. like so many others, has been irrevocably altered by his experiences, and by using the technique of jumping backwards and forwards in time, Ms Atkinson enables us to ‘know’ Teddy so well.

Her descriptive passages are awesome; especially harrowing are the detailed accounts of the horrific reality of bombing missions over Germany. Her research was clearly impeccable, and her description of the firebombing of Cologne is spine chilling. Her characters come alive on the page, and even her use of the literary trick of jumping from past to future, and back again is done so skilfully that there is no interruption to the ‘flow’ of the novel. Her characters are vividly drawn and completely engaging, her depiction of the family home, Fox Hollow, with its Growlery and roses in the Home Counties is exactly as it should be.

And finally, the ending. I cannot say more without spoiling it for you – but it is one of the most unexpected conclusions I’ve ever come across. Astonishing. READ IT!!!!

As always, if you would like Mum’s copy of this brilliant, brilliant novel, please get in touch with me either through here or the Facebook page, and it will give me immense pleasure to gift it forward to you. If you have missed out on Mum’s copy, here is a link to buy yourself one on Amazon. I promise you, this book is ten out of ten in every respect!

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27.’Year of Wonders’ by Geraldine Brooks.

What a lovely find this was last week amongst Mum’s library! I knew the name of the author thanks to her career as a journalist – she’s been a highly regarded war correspondent – but had no idea she had ventured into fiction. However, this tale is based on solid facts, and as such is refreshingly well researched and detailed in its subject matter, with the added delight of the authors marvellously written conception of how the villagers of Eyam would have been living their lives and engaging with one another during the horrors of the Black Death.

Historical fact – the villagers of Eyam, (pronounced Eem), in Derbyshire, took the heroic decision to quarantine themselves in 1666 when the plague broke out there, and thus stop it from spreading to the surrounding area. It was believed that the infection had arrived in a bolt of cloth from London, and, led by their saintly rector, William Mompesson, they lived, (and died), in isolation for a year, saving the surrounding populations from the disease.

Ms Brooks has taken this information and written a novel around it, seen from the perspective of the central character, Anna, a widowed shepherdess. It is graphical in its detail and accuracy, portraying the terror and the madness that grips the village as well as the acts of heroic compassion performed by individuals. The fictional rector, Michael Mompellion, and his fatally flawed wife Elinor develop a close relationship with Anna, who has lost her husband to a mining accident and her little boys to the plague. Anna herself is refreshingly energetic and forthright, someone you’d be glad to have on your side in a time like this.

Four fifths of the population of Eyam died that year. Their story deserves telling, and this novel does so brilliantly, mixing historical facts with an engaging story line, beautifully drawn characters even when they are horrible characters like Anna’s father and stepmother, and captivating insights into the way we lived and worked in the 17th century. Really well worth reading!

As always, if you would like to have Mum’s copy – she has noted the date Nov ’02 inside the front cover – to add to your bookshelf, please get in touch either here or through the Facebook page and I will be delighted to send it to you as a gift from Mum and I. If someone has already claimed this copy, here is an Amazon link for you to purchase a copy, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

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26. ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini.

What a wonderful follow up to The Kite Runner, but this time this story of Afghanistan is told through its women. Mum and I both loved this when it was first published in 2007, and her copy is dated January 2008. I have enjoyed re reading it more than I can express; although I again found it very disturbing in its depiction of the brutality of the regime and of the men, especially the particularly nasty and unpleasant Rasheed, husband to the two women who tell the story.

We begin with Mariam’s childhood on the outskirts of Herat, the plain, illegitimate only daughter of her bullying, epileptic mother. She lives for the visits her charming but insincere father makes, and for her lessons with the local mullah, a kindly man. Her bitter and resentful mother does her best to erode any hope Mariam might have for her future by continually reminding her that as a female and illegitimate to boot, she basically has nothing to hope for, with comments such as, ‘like a compass needle that points north, a mans accusing finger always finds a woman’, but the young Mariam still dreams of a day when she may live with her fathers other children and go to his cinema.

Everything unravels and Mariam realises the truth behind her mothers bitter words when she runs away to Herat to see her father, is shunned by him, and returns home to find her mother has hung herself. Forced to take her in, her father and his wives quickly marry her off to the revolting Rasheed, thirty years older than her, a widowed shoemaker from Kabul with rotting teeth who immediately makes fifteen year old Mariam wear a burqa, and when she fails to provide him with a child, treats her with contempt and brutality.

This continues through fifteen years of Afghan history, during which the Russians leave, the mujaheddin take over, a bloody struggle ensues between tribes, and the Taliban assume control…and that is really a massive precis, Mr Hossain paints an illuminating picture of the tumultuous political backdrop to the lives of his characters.

Laila is the beautiful, wilful and educated daughter of an intellectual father and an unbalanced mother; her brothers die fighting the Russians, her boyfriend loses a leg to a landmine, and at fourteen, she finds herself orphaned by a rocket strike on her home. Worse, she is pregnant by her boyfriend, Tariq, who has fled to Pakistan with his family, and, convinced he is dead, she becomes Rasheed’s second wife, passing off the baby as his.

Initially at odds with one another, after baby Aziza is born Mariam and Laila develop a deep, mutually supportive relationship, allied by their fear of their husband and the daily struggle to survive in an increasingly terrifying Kabul. Mariam’s mothers words haunt her as one man after another points an accusing finger at them, and the frightening reality of life under the Taliban is brought home when Laila has her second child by C section with no anaesthetic.

The story is, as with the Kite Runner, a tale of a deep relationship against the backdrop  of the turmoil that has characterised the recent history of Afghanistan. It tells of the resources these women find to enable them to survive the terrifying realities of their lives. It reminds us how lucky we are to live in the West, the freedoms we take for granted. And, as you may not yet have read it, I am saying nothing about the ending!

As always, now I have read it again I am gifting Mum’s copy forward, and if you would like to add this marvellous novel to your own bookshelf, please get in touch either here or on the facebook page @mumsbooks and I will be delighted to send it to you. Here is a link to it on Amazon if its gone and you feel the need to purchase it!

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25. ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ by George R.R. Martin.

It’s not one of Mum’s books, but it certainly one Mum would have bought, being one of Game of Thrones’ biggest fans like myself. Oh, the discussions we had about plots and characters, the delighted email I received once saying simply “I know what a warg is!”, the enjoyment we shared watching a documentary about George R.R. Martin together – we both wholeheartedly approved of his wife’s statement that if he killed off Arya, she would leave him!

BUT…and it’s a big ‘but’. I know that Mum would, like me, be saying, “I wish he would just get on with writing the next volume of the main story!”

That being said, I quite enjoyed this. It’s like the Hobbit compared to Lord of the Rings, although definitely not suitable for younger readers due to the language used, and that’s a shame really, because it does only crop up here and there, and this story of a hedge knight and his squire would have been a lovely read for a youngster. It is also quite confusing at times; trying to keep abreast of who is who in the Targaryen dynasty is a bit of a struggle.  You will have noted however that I did only say ‘quite’ enjoyed it. It does not have the same page-turning punch as the original series, and I found the illustrations throughout the book distracting – again, lovely for a youngster to add to their enjoyment, but does one really want a youngster reading a book with the C word sprinkled here and there, admittedly not as much swearing as the main series, but it’s there.

I keep coming back to PLEASE JUST FINISH THE ORIGINAL SERIES, MR MARTIN!

So, in no way a substitute for the next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire, but if you would like to read it, just get in touch either here or on the Facebook page and I will send it to you – it’s not a book I feel the need to keep, or re-read. Such a shame!

Here’s an Amazon link in case you have missed out on my copy and despite my less than glowing review, want to buy a copy yourself. And I would be very interested in hearing the opinions of others who have read this….were you as underwhelmed as me?

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