Home > 2010, 21st Century, Australian Literature, Munkara Marie, Novella > A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara – the appalling Aboriginal Ordinances Act of 1918

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

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.

  1. July 12, 2021 at 1:46 am

    I think you’re right, anything in dialect or slang or pidgin is hard to read when it’s a second language, even for someone as fluent as you are.
    But I’m glad you persisted and recognised that this is an absurdist novel, that’s what makes it so powerful.
    I will add this to my #ILW post and page when I can use my RH hand again. Thankyou for participating!


    • July 14, 2021 at 7:30 am

      It made me think of Ubu. Then I reminded that the rules at the beginning of each chapter were true. Unbelievable.

      Like always, I wonder where the French equivalents of these scandals are. I’m sure there must have been similar things in the former colonies and that it’s not out yet.

      I hope your right hand is healing nicely and that you’re doing better.


  2. July 12, 2021 at 7:57 pm

    Gosh, a shocking and powerful book – the treatment of some humans by other humans is really unspeakable.


    • July 14, 2021 at 7:31 am

      You should see the excerpts of the ordinances, it’s appalling.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. July 13, 2021 at 8:16 am

    I’ve read two Munkaras, but not this one which is still on my “wanna read” list. Good on you for tackling something like this Emma.


    • July 14, 2021 at 7:32 am

      Have you read her autobiography too? What a powerful book.


      • July 14, 2021 at 7:51 am

        Yes, that’s one of the two I’ve read and reviewed. I agree that it is powerful. I’ve been to the Tiwi Islands a couple of times, which made the book so vivid.


  4. July 14, 2021 at 2:43 pm

    Munkara’s satire bites really deep. But some sections of the Aborigines Act are so atrocious, so hard to believe, that just quoting them is satire in itself. Because the lives of Indigenous people were so closely controlled – where they could live, who they could associate with, their wages paid into trust funds which they could not access, and of course their children removed – a number of books by Indigenous authors begin their chapters by quoting from the Act (each state had its own version).


    • July 16, 2021 at 7:29 am

      Well-done satire are more powerful than plain criticism. This Aborigines Act is unbelievable and yes, it’s a great idea to simply quote it and let its absurdity and its horror sink in the reader’s mind.

      Their lives were controlled as if they were children or incapable adults. That’s the awful assumption of the whole system: they’re wards of the State and eveything is organised around this idea.


  5. buriedinprint
    July 16, 2021 at 8:51 pm

    It must have been even harder to absorb the story with the satirical overlay, even beyond the language. However, I suppose it does give you some added appreciation of the fact that these people were having their own struggles communicating in their colonizer’s language too…which is why it’s hybridized to begin with (at least in the land currently called Canada the Indigenous people were not allowed to speak their own languages…I assume that became common practice around the globe). Have you ever thought about a sideline as a translator? 🙂


    • July 17, 2021 at 9:58 pm

      The use of satire was well done, I was more bothered by the language than anything else. And that’s because I’m not a native English speaker. The satire enhanced the absurdity of the rules without the author criticizing them.
      They are laid out and the reader can’t help thinking “How is that even possible? It’s so ludicrous.” That’s why I mentioned Ubu King. And yet, the horror of knowing that these rules aren’t fictional sinks into you and you can’t help feeling revolted.

      PS: I’d love to be a translator but I don’t think I have what it takes to be one.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. July 13, 2021 at 12:52 am
  2. September 4, 2021 at 9:55 am

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