Five for five book reviews


Five keen Library readers review five new release books.

Rooted: An Australian history of bad language by Amanda Laugesen cover
Rooted: An Australian history of bad language
by Amanda Laugesen
NewSouth Publishing

In April 2010 I became the first Mitchell Librarian at the State Library of NSW to swear in the Sydney Morning Herald. The Library had just purchased a marvellous tranche of letters by John Septimus Roe, written in Sydney in the late 1810s. Trying to convey the haste in which many of the letters were concluded, I told the journalist, ‘You can see it in his handwriting. That sense of “Shit!” The ship’s about to sail!’ I was mortified, however, to see my words printed in the Herald. What seemed appropriate as casual conversation did not translate well, in my view, into a formal public forum.

Bad language is a complex thing. Australians are by reputation prodigious swearers. Indeed, profanity is supposedly a nation-defining characteristic and lexicographer Amanda Laugesen explores this idea in her new book, Rooted. As Laugesen points out, there’s a lot more to swearing or profanity than simple bad manners. A refusal to swear can be worn as a badge of respectability and distinction: conversely swearing can be deployed as a vehicle of rebellion and defiance. Swearing, or refusing to swear, is almost a performance of cultural allegiance, a signal of class position or social aspiration. Laugesen writes that ‘bad language’ — which she defines as swear words, slurs and derogatory epithets — is entirely contextual and socially constructed. In 2010 the word shit was ubiquitous in both speech and print, and in that sense largely innocuous, but it was line ball if it was appropriate in the context in which I was quoted.

I am pretty sure that Roe himself, the seventh son of a clergyman, does not swear in any of his 200 letters. But he would have heard a lot of swearing around him. In nineteenth century Australia, where free colonists were petrified of being associated with convicts, the appearance of respectability was deeply significant: as Laugesen notes it added a particularly Australian ferocity to defending class boundaries.

A person swearing in those days was more likely to be saying bloody, bastard or damn: words that carried much more offence then — because of their blasphemous origins — than now. Laugesen has shown this by carefully combing texts — mainly print — for references to language. It’s not possible, unfortunately, to account for the potential disconnects and time lags between spoken language and words appearing in print.

As Rooted explains, bad language is never simply bad language. Any policing of it, for instance, disproportionately catches the marginalised, the unwell and the dispossessed. Similarly robust language, once seen as picturesquely Australian, is now often read as deeply misogynistic, particularly when used against women, an issue amplified by social media. Since the early 1970s, the public acceptance of robust language has shifted significantly. The Department of Education would not today, for instance, take away a teaching scholarship from a student as it did to Penny Short (see page 44) in 1973 for using ‘the c-word’ in a creative work; it would be much more concerned with language with a gendered target. Rooted is a fascinating and very readable excursion into more than two centuries of Australian bad language.

Richard Neville

Lowitja by Stuart Rintoul cover
by Stuart Rintoul
Allen & Unwin

Lowitja O’Donoghue, renowned human rights and social justice advocate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, is perhaps one of the best-known Aboriginal leaders of our time. Stuart Rintoul’s meticulously researched biography charts her life against the social and political backdrop that saw her removed from her mother as a child into the hands of missionaries. Recounting the many hardships of O’Donoghue’s young life that fuelled her drive and shaped her remarkable trajectory, the story is unsentimentally yet unflinchingly told.

Marika Duczynski

The Ways of the Bushwalker by Melissa Harper cover
The Ways of the Bushwalker
by Melissa Harper
NewSouth Publishing

From naked walking in the 1890s to ‘mystery hikes’ in the 1930s, the stories of those who walked before us can only enhance a bushwalker’s life. The barefooted, shorts-wearing Dot Butler of the 30s is my favourite. This updated history of bushwalking in Australia enjoyably charts changing attitudes to the natural environment, takes on the controversies about who owns and uses the landscapes we walk through, and asks what we should make of plunge pools and pinot noir on increasingly ‘monetised’ walks.

Cathy Perkins

Dog by Shaun Tan cover
by Shaun Tan
Allen & Unwin

Shaun Tan’s painterly illustrations of dogs and people are likely to give this children’s book a broad appeal beyond its target readership. Dog highlights the intensely loyal, even intimate, connection between dog and owner, and what happens when one dies. Spanning many centuries, cultures and places to show the universality of the bond, these gentle meditations begin with an Indigenous man and his dingo and move through forest, desert, snow, rice fields, across a viaduct, along a desolate wartime railway line and end on a familiar suburban street.

Louise Anemaat

Searching for Charlotte by Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell cover
Searching for Charlotte
by Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell
NLA Publishing

Sisters Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell — both award-winning, bestselling authors — unearth the fascinating story of their four-times great-grandmother Charlotte Atkinson, author of Australia’s first children’s book, A Mother’s Offering to Her Children, published anonymously in 1841 and not attributed until 1981. They weave stories of Charlotte’s life, passed down through generations of storytellers, with their own journey of discovery. The result is a wonderful tale of love, loss, determination and resilience, celebrating the life of a fiercely independent woman who refused to conform to colonial society’s expectations.

Sarah Morley

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