Thursday 15 January 2015

The Girl from the Great Sandy Desert

The Girl from the Great Sandy Desert by Jukuna Mona Chuguna and Pat Lowe, illustrated by Mervyn Street (Magabala Books)
PB RRP $16.95
ISBN 978-1-922142-05-4
Reviewed by Dianne Bates

Known by her white name Mona, Jukuna Chuguna, a Walmajarri woman from the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia, worked with a white Englishwoman, Pat Lowe, to relate stories about the life of desert dweller Mana and her Walmajarri family. In the book’s introduction, Lowe tells of her experience with Jukuna who would visit her house, sometimes painting; together they co-wrote this children’s book. Jukuna also wrote her autobiography in Walmajarri language; it was translated in English and published in 2004, alone with the story of her sister, Ngarta, in a single volume titled Two Sisters.

This book, however, is for children aged 8 to 12 years. It is a series of short stories about Mana who was born under a tree and raised in the desert. A child reading this book would learn much about tribal life – how desert families hunted and camped, and about tribal relationships.  They would also learn about spirits such as spirit babies, known as wurrawurra’. Mana’s spirit is jarriny, named after a desert nut tree oozing with gum.

There are stories here about Mana’s extended family, for instance her aunty Lilil and uncles Yinti and Kana. Mana has two mothers; her own mother was her father’s first wife; his second wife was blind; thus the book is a great way of showing young readers how disabled Aborigines are treated by their own people. The stories are episodic and have self-explanatory titles such as ‘Nearly Buried Alive’, ‘The Fight’, ‘Mana the Hunter,’ ‘A Trick’ and ‘Mana Loses her Father.’

There are a number of break-outs throughout the book with headings such as ‘Fire’, ‘Food and Fasting’, ‘Dogs’, ‘Dying in the Desert’ and ‘Digging for Water.’ These mini-articles provide factual information relating to the stories accompanying them. The break-out on ‘Body Scars’ relates to a story wherein Mana and her friends Tili and Kayi and three young boys are cut on their bodies so ‘the bad kukurr spirit’ won’t bother them. ‘Body Scars’ tells how desert people who were cut rubbed ash and ochre into the cuts to raise the scars into ridges.

The Girl from the Great Sandy Desert is a very interesting account based on events in Jukuna’s own life. Elucidating the rich cultural lives of pre-contact Aboriginal Australians, the book is a valuable resource for educators and young readers, and is accompanied by beautiful black and white wash illustrations by Gooniyandi artist Mervyn Street from the Kimberley’s Fitzroy River region.

In the 1950’s Jukuna Mona Chuguna left the desert with her husband to live and work on cattle and sheep stations in the Kimberley’s Fitzroy Valley. In middle age, she became a well-regarded artist, holding exhibitions of her work around Australia and overseas. She was a natural teacher and great storyteller. She died in 2011.

It should be noted that these authentic Indigenous Australian stories include notes that complement main text, glossary and pronunciation guide. There is a set of teachers’ notes linked to the new Australian Curriculum

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