Captains of the Soul in Sceptical Times

Captains of the Soul: A history of Australian Army chaplains by Michael Gladwin, (Big Sky Publishing, 2013).

Captains of the Soul: A history of Australian Army chaplains by Michael Gladwin, (Big Sky Publishing, 2013).

The interaction between religious and non-religious beliefs in Australian society is complicated. It is often obscured by a public debate which in recent times has been punctuated by simple slogans, such as “Australia is a Christian country” or “separation between church and state”. Passion about these issues has periodically run high through Australia’s post European-settlement history. To gain a better understanding of secularism and religion in Australia we need to dig under the gushing of rhetoric to examine the actions of Australians.

Education is an important arm of the state in Australia. As I’ve noted in my review of the recently published book about religion in schools by Marion Maddox, Australian children  learned about God in their public school classrooms even in the times of allegedly “free, compulsory and secular education” in the late nineteenth-century.  We continue to have religious education in our public schools and now we have significant funding of religious schools as well as religious chaplains in our public schools.

Michael Gladwin’s new book, Captains of the Soul, brings attention to how religion is embedded in another important arm of the Australian state. Chaplains have been part of the defence forces during every major overseas war in which Australians have been officially involved. Gladwin tells of how the New South Wales government “bowed to significant public pressure” and allowed two chaplains to accompany the troops to Sudan in 1885, one from the Roman Catholic Church and the other from the Church of England. Eighteen chaplains accompanied colonial forces to the Boer War at the turn of the twentieth century. Continue reading

Review: Broken Nation

Book cover of Broken Nation

Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, by Joan Beaumont (Allen & Unwin: Crows Nest (NSW), 2013.

Australia now has a comprehensive history of World War I. In one book, historian, Joan Beaumont gives an overview of the battles, the home front, diplomacy and memory of Australians at war. Written for the general reader, Broken Nation is a reference that family historians, students and anyone who is interested in war history would find a useful addition to their bookshelves.

A war is about the violence of battles. Beaumont recognises the “centrality of fighting”. She also recognises the centrality of chronology in a war. This history is told sequentially, each year of the war is allocated one long chapter which covers the battles and the experience of Australians at home. Helpful maps accompanying explanations of all the major battles that involved the Australians. After each significant battle for the Australians Beaumont asks why the battle is the focus of today’s fascination or why it has been largely forgotten.

While Beaumont focuses on the Australian experience of World War I, the reader will find her balanced approach refreshing. Beaumont periodically acquaints the reader with the overall picture of World War I, thus the reader will learn about the Germans, Russians, Austrians and other nationalities who fought in another significant theatre of World War I – the Eastern Front. Beaumont includes this, as well as the fighting between the Italians and Austrians to the south, in order to explain the overall picture that the Allied generals took into account when planning action involving the Australians. This provides the context the reader needs to better understand the tactical decisions of the Generals. Continue reading

Reading in 2013: some reflections

Logo for Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

I’ve used the 2012 logo throughout 2013, so why not use it one more time?

During 2013 I participated in the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. This Challenge encourages people to read and review books written by Australian women. It is a response to the lack of attention women writers receive from major reviewing publications both in Australia and elsewhere in the western world.

I like the fact that instead of whinging about yet another example of how women tend to suffer second-rate treatment, we can do something positive to bring attention to the extent and quality of women’s writing through this Challenge.

This year I challenged myself to the Franklin level – reading ten books by Australian women and reviewing six. These are the books I reviewed in 2013: Continue reading

Review: Forgotten Rebels of Eureka

Wright Forgotten Rebels Eureka

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright, (Text Publishing: Melbourne, 2013).

This book is bold. A bed-time story this ain’t. Its prose slaps you around the face to make sure you are paying attention. It is assertive and provocative. It sucks you into the time that was, on the Ballarat goldfields of the mid-nineteenth century.

The history of Victoria’s gold rushes and the Eureka Stockade is one of Australia’s well-worn foundational stories. Each year the story is told in school classrooms throughout Australia and children dutifully do their Gold Rush project with varying degrees of interest. Students are told about the flood of people from all over the world rushing to Australia to find gold. They learn about the crowded diggings, about the mass communities of tents which suddenly appeared only to be taken down in great haste when rumour told of a find of gold somewhere else. The lessons go on to tell the story of the miners’ grievances about the compulsory miners’ licence and their complaints about their treatment by authorities on the gold field. They culminate in the rebellion known as Eureka Stockade and the deaths of miners and soldiers after a raid on the Stockade by government forces.

This story could be interesting but the only memory I have of my grade five Gold Rush lessons is how deadly dull they were. One of my daughters didn’t see the point of the project at all.  Yet to my surprise a few months ago the same child, now an adult, told me how much she enjoyed reading an academic article about the Gold Rush for her first year university history course. The article was by Clare Wright, the author of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. I was aware of the impending release of her book but the fact that Wright’s academic writing had excited a student who had a personal history of thorough disinterest in Gold Rush history made me eager to read the book.

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Review: My Ngarrindjeri Calling

Warning: This post contains references to Aboriginal people who are now deceased. The books referred to in this post may also contain references and images of deceased Aboriginal people.

My Ngarrindjeri Calling by Doreen Kartinyeri and Sue Anderson (Aboriginal Studies Press:  Canberra, 2008).

My Ngarrindjeri Calling by Doreen Kartinyeri and Sue Anderson (Aboriginal Studies Press: Canberra, 2008).

“Never put black history on white paper” the elders taught her.  One time Doreen Kartinyeri did not follow this instruction. She wrote about secret women’s business on Kumarangk (Hindmarsh Island), South Australia, in a bid to stop the desecration of important Aboriginal sites on the island.  The instruction, “to be read by women only” was written on the outside of the sealed envelope and it was sent to the office of the Federal minister for Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra.

In this memoir Doreen Kartinyeri gives her explanation of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge controversy of the 1990s. Kartinyeri shares the story of her life and explains how she came to know about the secret women’s business. Her life story clearly establishes her expertise in Aboriginal knowledge and her identity as a Ngarrindjeri woman.

Kartinyeri was devastated when the Federal shadow minister for the environment, Ian McLachlan, threw her instructions aside and tabled the contents of the envelope in parliament.  “I knew I would pay for this error of judgement”, she says. “That day my mi: wi [soul, spirit] was ruptured. I should never have put black words on white paper, and my punishment for breaking that Ngarrindjeri law was about to begin.” “It was still no consolation when two days later McLachlan did resign or even when Deane Fergie brought the secret envelopes back from Canberra.  I was feeling really disturbed, really sick to my stomach about it all”.

A Royal Commission was held in South Australia to ascertain whether the Aboriginal women had fabricated evidence about secret women’s business. It concluded that they had lied. “I cried enough tears to flush the River Murray”, said Kartinyeri.

This book sears with emotion. Kartinyeri’s childhood on a mission living in a two-room house built from flattened kerosene tins was rent apart when her mother died. At the age of ten she was forced to leave the mission and live in the Fullarton Girls Home in Adelaide. Continue reading