Thursday 17 June 2021

Common Wealth

Common Wealth by Gregg Dreise (Scholastic) HB RRP $24.99 ISBN 9781760975166

Reviewed by Nikki M Heath

The history of Australia’s first peoples reaches far back in time, so it is hardly accurate to say that Indigenous issues are ‘topical’. Nevertheless, it is clear that recent international winds have been breathing new energy into the movement for recognition and support of Indigenous people in Australia. Released in time for Reconciliation Week 2021, Common Wealth is a valuable contribution to that conversation.

The main text of this book is Greg Dreise’s slam poem calling for acknowledgment of Indigenous history, respect for the land and embracing community. The poem critiques certain trappings of Australian official nationhood, including the flag, anthem, and Australia Day, explaining the Indigenous perspective on those icons.

The illustrations are striking, graphic and colourful, extensively utilising the iconic ‘dot painting’ technique as well as other drawing and painting styles. Playing an important role in creating the overall impact of the book, they range from figurative to extremely literal. It is important to note that one page has a depiction of a hanging as well as a press-gang, pegging the book firmly in the ‘older readers’ category.

Most spreads include some additional text outside the structure of the poem.  The first and final spreads include the words ‘listen’ and ‘thank you’ presented in both English and an Indigenous language (it is not clear which one - this would have been a nice detail to include). Through the body of the book, this subtle bilingual detail makes way for more pointed comments. This content is provocative and meaningful, but it lacks the poetic rhythm of the main text. Readers should read the main text without interruption to enjoy the poem’s punchy impact, before circling back to consider the illustrations in more detail alongside the additional textual commentary. 

Appropriately for a book targeted at a youth audience, there is recognition of the positives of modern Australian culture and an expression of hope for the future. The final pages call for unity, communication and a ‘common wealth’ vision. The book’s title, echoing this idea, sums it up perfectly.

Although advertised by the publisher for ages 6 and above, as mentioned above some of the imagery is confronting, and as such it is probably best kept for upper primary school-aged children and high schoolers. Many adults would equally benefit from the introspection this book provokes. Choose the audience with care, and then embrace the challenge.

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