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Book Review – Shadow Lines by Stephen Kinnane

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Shadow Lines is another book I hadn’t intended on reading. It’s a memoir written in recent times by Stephen Kinnane, whose grandparents were a very interesting couple indeed. This is part family history, part history of the oppression of Aboriginal people in Western Australia in the twentieth century. The two topics are intertwined. This is an imposing book – dense, heavy and sometimes ponderous – but it is well worth reading for anyone interested in Western Australian history or the struggle of Aboriginal people in this country.

Shadow Lines revolves around two people born a world apart, a half caste Aboriginal woman by the name of Jessie Argyle, and an Englishman named Edward Smith. Edward was born in 1891 and emigrated to Australia in 1909 as an eighteen year-old. Jessie was born in the Argyle region in the far north of Western Australia in 1900, and was taken from her family in 1906 under the newly created Aborigines Act of 1905. This book makes the often dry history of Western Australia since white colonisation come alive, and is probably a far better way to learn about the sordid history of this state than by way of the official history textbooks.

What Kinnane has done here is weave together a rich tapestry of historical tales, often with a fair degree of creative interpretation. It’s not quite a straight historical text but it certainly isn’t fiction either. One strand narrates Smith’s life, which was already half over by the time he met the woman who would eventually be his wife. This is moderately interesting, but no more. More interesting are the trials of Jessie Argyle, who was forced to live in places such as the Swan Valley Mission, various towns across the state, and the notorious Moore River Aboriginal Settlement. The third strand concerns Kinnane’s own travels across the state in meeting the surviving members of the earlier generation, many of whom are Kinnane’s own relatives. In doing so, Kinnane manages to turn the lives of his grandparents into an initally slow but ultimately very compelling story.

In the course of our reading, we learn a great many things about the oppression of Aboriginal people in the twentieth century, from the concentration camp that was the Moore River Settlement, to the Prohibition Zone that existed around the centre of Perth from 1927 to 1954, to the draconian regime of the Aborigines Department under A. O. Neville. Neville is this story’s antagonist. Kinnane invests a lot of time explaining how Neville’s actions in curtailing and controlling the lives of thousands of people went beyond the call of duty. According to Kinnane, Neville was more than a man of his time, but in fact a dictator carving out his own empire. This is a very depressing read at times, but ultimately uplifting in the sense that Jessie Argyle eventually sees the end of Neville. If Neville is the antagonist, then Jessie is the protagonist, and we cheer her life’s victories and lament her defeats. Jessie Argyle is a heroic figure in this story, and we can share Kinnane’s admiration for his grandmother.

There’s not much more to say. This feels like an inadequate review, but let me end simply by saying that I found Shadow Lines to provide an extremely interesting slice of twentieth century history, and one that sheds considerable light on the plight of Aboriginal people during this time. I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about the history of Western Australia, or the struggle of Aboriginal people more generally.

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