Australians: From Eureka to the Diggers by Thomas Keneally

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Australians: Eureka to the Diggers by Thomas Keneally (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2011).

Reading Thomas Keneally’s, Australians:  Erueka to the Diggers, made me reflect that writing a national history must be the hardest historical work that anyone can undertake.  So many choices have to be made.  Such a book cannot include everything – what should the author leave out, what should they prioritise what should be covered in just one paragraph?

Then I thought about the research involved.  This is not a project for someone at the beginning of their career who needs to do the research from scratch.  The author needs to rely on a lifetime of reading and understanding.  Inevitably they will need to rely on the work of others, but which books and journal articles should be consulted?  The reader should be considered in writing such a book.  The book needs to sustain interest and to avoid becoming a turgid chronological list of important people and events.  The author needs to consider which reader to appeal to.  A publisher such as the publisher of this book, Allen & Unwin, wants to appeal to the book buying public, the ‘average’ reader.  Who is the average reader?

Australians:  Eureka to the Diggers covers Australian history from 1860 to the close of World War I.  Keneally tells the stories of Australia’s past through a number of vignettes highlighting the successful and unsuccessful lives of a few Australians.  This gives freshness to the delivery of aspects of our history that have been drummed into us at school and by the media.

Rather than a traditional tale of greatness, Keneally writes empathetically about people who muddle through life.  I was particularly engrossed by the muddling story of one of Charles Dickens’ sons, Edward ‘Plorn’ Dickens.  Much of his Australian life was based in the New South Wales outback town of Wilcannia.  Like so many settlers this man struggled with the incompatibility of English cultural values and the unrelenting Australian environment.  Dickens aspired to be a great white man but never quite achieved it.  His story allows a touch of New South Wales parliamentary politics to be told from a western New South Wales perspective casting a different light on the outback/urban divide of the time.

It is difficult to relate a national history to an audience who don’t want to be reminded of tedious history lessons at school.  Keneally includes some fragments which are not an essential part of traditional national history but he does so to help his reader relate to people of the past.  He injects historical figures with personality.  An example of this is his anecdote about influential Australian politicians in London negotiating the terms of the legislation that had to pass through the British parliament in order to recognise the federation of the Australian colonies.  When the British Prime Minister, Joseph Chamberlain had exited the room after finally conceding to the Australians on a highly disputed issue, the Australian men held hands and danced in the room.  “It was easier to imagine Kingston dancing better than Deakin, but it seems to have been the truth: two whiskered men and a clean-shaven one doing the Federation waltz.” remarks Keneally (p. 233).

This book covers World War I, another passage of our history drummed into us at both school and in the media.  Keneally empathises with Australians:

Despite many superb modern histories, for the lay reader the various battles blur, separated by ill-defined stretches of churned French and Belgian countryside, involving foul trenches, inhuman bombardment, satanic gas and night-hour raids on enemy lines… In histories of World War I, the mud rises, the impersonal torrent of shells fall, and geography is swamped…

p. 320

Keneally writes for his Australian readers who hear a limited number of stories about World War I many times over and need to hear about it from different perspectives.  He opens his account of World War I by telling the story of the war in the Pacific – not the place where many WWI histories start.   Keneally then sensitively discusses the issue of mental illness among soldiers, the war from the perspective of the stretcher bearers and Australian prisoners of war. There is an interesting paragraph about Aboriginal light horsemen and reference to Aboriginal troops in general.  Away from the battleground Keneally relates the story of Australian mining and the War.

It was refreshing to see so much space devoted to the abduction of South Sea Islanders and their work in Queensland under appalling conditions.  Keneally does not hide his opinions when he relates how Australians snatched the Kanakas from their homes, transported them in dreadful conditions on ships to Queensland and then worked them on sugar plantations in conditions that no European would endure.  Keneally highlights the role of investigative journalism and government health investigations in revealing the  appalling treatment of the Islanders to the Australian public at the time as well as the dubious morals of politicians.

Clearly Keneally empathises with the plight of Aborigines during this period.  He shares accounts of massacres, murders and cruelty as well as the story of the Aboriginal cricket tour of England. Yet Keneally’s account of the missionary work in the north troubled me. He has a tough task here, to give an overview of the world of missionaries and Aborigines in four short pages.  He does this through sharing some examples of well meaning but misguided missionaries who floundered in their attempts to Christianise Aborigines.  I appreciate Keneally’s efforts to demonstrate that not all missionaries were heartless and cruel people.  They certainly were not. However, this section did not look at how governments relied on missions or what was happening to Aboriginal communities as a consequence of missions.  I felt that a discussion of the mission system and the various assumptions underpinning this approach should have been included as well.

Keneally cannot possibly have read even a fraction of the historical debates and advances in research for every topic he included in his book.  Neither does he have room to convey the complexity of various issues such as that of Aborigines and the missions.  This is the impossible nature of national histories.  They require the author to have a prodigious understanding of all aspects of a nation’s history and to encapsulate complex issues in too small a space.

This also makes such books difficult to review.  I am not qualified to attest to the soundness of many topics covered in this book.  However, I do know that Charles Pearson was never the Premier of Victoria as Keneally asserts on p. 132.

This is not the definitive history of Australia.  National histories by their nature assert that all important aspects of a nation’s history have been included but they never achieve this standard.  Keneally does not cover the introduction of free, compulsory and secular education in the colonies during the late nineteenth century – an initiative that changed the lives of every Australian.  There is just the briefest reference to the crippling shearers’ strikes of the 1890s even though the bitterness of these disputes sent divisive shudders through Australian society.  He did not give much attention given to women.  The reader will have to look elsewhere for discussion of these significant aspects of our history.  One book cannot contain it all which is why readers need to read a variety of histories in their quest to understand a nation’s past.

Overall this book is better than I had expected due to the attention Keneally gives to engaging the Australian reader.  Keneally’s empathy for both the reader and his historical subjects drives this book. At the beginning he says that his purpose is to:

…attempt to place the reader inside the very flesh and breath and passion of Australian life in the past.  The people of this book are the lenses through which – at least I hope – you will more than adequately see Australia’s history play itself out.

pp. xiii-xiv

In terms of this Keneally achieved the goal he set himself.  However, the shortcomings of this book reinforce my wariness of national histories and the problems inherent in this sub-genre.

Other reviews of this book

Thankyou to Lisa Hill who gave me a copy of this book and encouraged me to write a review of it.

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4 thoughts on “Australians: From Eureka to the Diggers by Thomas Keneally

  1. Thank you so much for this review, Yvonne, because it does exactly what I need it to do. It’s fair, in addressing the impossibility of the task the ‘national historian’ faces, but it explains to the general reader (i.e. me) what the limitations inevitably are. I like the way you’ve addressed Keneally’s engaging approach and I also like the way you’ve pointed out some omissions without being hypercritical. I think it’s especially useful that you’ve addressed the general attitude that derives from ‘tedious lessons at school’ and especially the need to explore the Anzac story through different perspectives. I love history but I know that these are not problems that are going to go away and I’m pleased that you think Keneally’s approach is part of the armoury that might help to redress these negative attitudes to Australian history.
    I don’t know if you saw the article in the ABR where I was one of a number of bloggers interviewed by Kerryn Goldsworthy – she quoted me as saying that as a general reader of non-fiction I wanted books reviewed by experts but I didn’t want academic nit-picking. She grouped this comment of mine to support others she’d interviewed who had concerns about some academic reviews, but I’m not one who regards the term academic as a ‘dirty word’. What I meant was that I don’t like academic reviews which catalogue a long list of factual errors as a form of point-scoring.
    What you’ve done here is to explain, rather than criticise the limitations of the genre, with illustrative examples that confirm your wise advice that we ought not rely on one history.
    It’s made me want to dig this history out again and browse through it, to read it with more of an historian’s eye, and also to keep searching out other histories in areas where he has been able to scratch the surface.
    Thanks:)

    • I missed the ABR article but I’ll look it up. I agree about academic nitpicking in reviews. Fortunately I haven’t come across reviews recently like that but when it occurs the reader feels sorry for the author. It makes the reviewer look like they are trying to promote themselves at the expense of a hapless writer. It is so difficult for an author to include everything and they have usually done so much work it seems rather unfair to have a go at them about something they have not included rather than critiquing what the author has written about. However, on the issue of an author getting facts wrong I am not so relaxed. People trust that what is in print is correct. An error in one book can be replicated many times which could lead to unfortunate consequences in some circumstances. It is important that authors and editors are painstaking in their proof-reading and particular about details.

      Thankyou for your comments. I’m particularly pleased that you think it is fair. This is what I aspire to in all my reviews.

      • Yes, it’s very tricky for editors too, because they can’t possibly have done the same amount of research!

      • You’re right re the difficulty for editors. However, I think the publisher should make clear to writers of non-fiction high standards of accuracy are expected.

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