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The White Girl
2020 - Winner
Tony Birch narrates the story of Odette Brown and her granddaughter Sissy with genuine compassion and what can only be described as reserved anguish. The characters he weaves are utterly real, as is the sense of existential threat as these two elusive Aboriginal women navigate their way out of their country town and the long, grabbing arms of the state.
An outstanding work by a master of the craft, The White Girl resonates strongly in the present despite being set in the past. Birch has drawn one of the most memorable and charming characters in Australian literature in the staunch person of Odette, who is compelled by an abiding sense of justice and a steely determination to protect her granddaughter at all costs.
While not attempting to tell the broader national story of child removal policies and the stolen generations, The White Girl is a close examination of the power of the state and bureaucracies to alter the course of individual lives. However understated, there is something cinematic about the epic story of these three generations of finely characterised Aboriginal women - one of whom is missing - as they rail against the suffocating country town and its barely concealed threats, which include pathological racism, intergenerational sexual abuse and machine-like callous indifference.
Country is kept anonymous and geography is mapped broadly - only as much as it serves the story - while the minute and often arbitrary surveillance of Aboriginal lives is actually mirrored in the universal thematics of state control and individual freedom. The power of kin is strongly evoked in the central relationship between a grandmother and her missing daughter’s child - a broken circle mended by an undying act of love.