Books Change Lives: Guest post by Andrew Finegan on Indigenous Literacy and the Barrumbi trilogy Leonie Norrington

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Recently, on September 2nd, Indigenous Literacy Day was celebrated across Australia. Having worked in the Northern Territory for a few years, a lack of literacy skills amongst many indigenous Australians is a huge barrier toward social inclusion – especially when faced with a predominantly English-speaking society. Indigenous Literacy Day focuses on addressing the current literacy crisis that exists in remote indigenous communities, where 1/3 of of Australia’s indigenous students do not have the sufficient skills, by the age of 15, to face real-life challenges.

Working as a librarian in Darwin, I became aware of Leonie Norrington’s “Barrumbi Trilogy”, when the third book in the trilogy “Leaving Barrumbi” was shortlisted for the CBCA Book of the Year for Older Readers in 2008. For me, this was at a time when I was still getting used to life in Darwin, and suffering slightly from culture shock, especially when the media was, at the time, full of shocking stories of violence and disorder in Indigenous communities, and the Federal Government were implementing their Intervention into Aboriginal Communities.

Reading Leonie’s books showed me a very different life in Indigenous communities, following the lives of two boys – Tomias, who is indigenous, and Dale, who is white – growing up in the Top End community of Long Hole. It describes community life in great detail, providing insight into the ways in which indigenous traditions are
followed in day-to-day life, and observing the traditional spirituality that emerges through the landscape and weather. The books also depict the tensions that arise between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures, especially in “Leaving Barrumbi”, where Dale and Tomias finally leave Long Hole, and face boarding school, where
Dale is encouraged to associate with the white students. But what is most striking about these novels is the amount of pleasure that these stories evoke – in spite of living in seemingly-adverse conditions, Leonie always takes a positive approach to addressing the central, without making light of them in any way. This is a huge departure from the misery lit that one might often associate with stories of indigenous communities.

I also had the pleasure of hearing Leonie speak about her books at the Wordstorm Festival in 2008, and she talked about the importance of children being able to read themselves in the characters of the books that they read. When you’ve lived in a remote community all of your life, it’s hard to see the relevance of white kids living in cities, or wizards going to school in castles, or vampires playing baseball
and sparkling. Leonie said that she wanted to write books that kids in indigenous communities could read, and enjoy, because it was about them, using their landscape, their traditions, their language, to tell their stories. It’s important in not only empowering these children with the pleasure in reading, but also giving them confidence in the knowledge that their stories are important, and are worth sharing with the world.

And for me, a non-Indigenous “Southerner”, these books were instrumental in providing a fresh and positive perspective into indigenous life in communities, and a thoroughly delightful read at that.


Andrew Finegan is a Melbourne librarian who runs a blog called Librarian Idol which is well worth reading.

This guest post is part of Book Change Lives September, on Hey! Teenager of the Year. To read all the guest posts, click here.
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