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A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara – the appalling Aboriginal Ordinances Act of 1918

July 11, 2021 15 comments

A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara (2014) Not available in French.

I’ve had A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara on the shelf since 2018, when I bought it at Red Kangaroo Books in Alice Springs. I decided to read it for Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week organised from July 5th to July 11th. Given my timeline, we’re still on July 11th when I write this, so I’m still on time.

I’ve heard of Marie Munkara on Lisa’s blog and read her autobiography Of Ashes and Rivers that Runs to the Sea. She’s one of the Stolen Generation people and she explains how she came back to her biological family.

A Most Peculiar Act is a satirical novel set in the Northern Territory in 1942. Each chapter starts with an excerpt of the Aboriginal Ordinances Act that date back to 1918. Basically, the Aborigines have no civil rights

We are in a remote place in the bush. The Aborigines live in two places, The Camp where families are gathered and The Pound, a place “enclosed with a high fence to keep the coloured females under eighteen in and everyone else out.”

They can’t live outside of The Camp, the young women must go the The Pound and they’re not allowed to welcome who they want at The Camp. They are all listed on the Register of Wards of State. The girls are placed as domestics in white families. Whitish babies are taken away from their mothers.

White civil servants operate The Camp and The Pound. The staff is composed of an Administrator, a Chief Protector of Aboriginals, four patrol officers and a Superintendent of The Pound. The wives also play an important part in the system. This little clique runs the Aboriginals’ lives according to the power bestowed upon them by the Aboriginal Ordinances Act and according to their incompetence, their prejudice and their meanness. They are all unworthy of their power.

We follow the fate of Sugar, a sixteen-year-old Aboriginal and of Ralphie, a patrol officer.

When the book opens, Sugar is pregnant and at the end of her pregnancy. She fails to hide in the bush when Ralphie and Desmond, the two patrol officers, come to the Camp. She’s sent to the hospital against her will. She wanted to deliver her baby in the bush, among her people. We soon learn that she had an affair with Ralphie and when she delivers twins, the whitest of the two is taken away and given to a white family.

Meanwhile, we see the absurdity of the interactions between the white management. The new Chief Protector of the Aboriginals, nicknamed Horrid Hump, is a teetotaller and a man with ambitions that far outweighed his capabilities. He fires Ralphie for drinking too much, condemning him to poverty. He hires Drew Hepplewaite to replace him. She’s mean-spirited and racist. She’ll go beyond her duty to make the Aboriginals’ lives miserable. She’ll also wreak havoc among the whites, destroying the carefully constructed balance between the people.

Each chapter is more absurd than the other and Marie Munkara uses her novella to point out the cruelty and the stupidity of the system. The Chief Protector of Aboriginals doesn’t protect them from anything and the assimilation policy ends up in changing people’s names or stealing their children. That’s why Aboriginal characters are named Rawhide, Horseshoe, Fuel Drum, Donkey Face or Pickhandle.

While Marie Munkara succeeds in showing the appalling system of these ordinances, I would have liked to learn more about the Aboriginal characters of the book. Also, for a French reader, the pidgin English spoken by the Aboriginal characters was difficult to read and to understand. It wasn’t a smooth read for this reader and it got in the way of fully enjoying the book. I might have missed some references too.

Out of the two Munkaras I’ve read, I’d recommend her autobiography before reading A Most Peculiar Act.

See Lisa’s review here.

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