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Writing about Indigenous issues, refugees and Australian social history.

Reviews of The Crossing

Review by Heather Whitford Roche, author of “Finding Eliza” published 2018

This intriguing Australian debut novel takes the reader back to the 1960s. A young nun travels to Cobbs Crossing, a country town in the Mallee, to work as a teacher at St Cuthbert’s, an orphanage run by the Catholic Church.

Sarah finds more than she bargained for at St Cuthbert’s. The children are all Aboriginal and although supposedly orphaned, she discovers many are not. A newspaper reporter befriends and challenges the young nun and together they uncover disturbing facts about the orphanage. Sarah is conflicted between her role and beliefs as a Catholic nun and her commitment to the children and to the truth.

The book shines a light on the devious and misguided treatment of Indigenous people by white Australians in the not-so-distant past. The author cleverly weaves humour and humanity into the sinister and shocking aspects of this story. The book is finely researched and carries with it a poignant and important message. The characters are engaging and believable.

The Crossing captures the essence of what it is to stand up for fairness and equity with a story arc that holds the reader until the very last page. The author is to be congratulated on this well-structured and beautifully written book. 

2009 Australian of the Year, Mick Dodson said in his testament to this novel, “Characters in this book are real. I have met them in my lifetime. They are part of the story of the Stolen Generations, an integral part of the shared history of our country. Every Australian should read this book”.

Review by Christina Houen, author of “This Place You Know” 2019 and “A Practice of Loss” 2021

A sub-genre of historical fiction recreates the shameful history of the Stolen Generations, Australia’s systematic program of removing Aboriginal children from their families so that they would become ‘assimilated.’ The underlying belief was that Aboriginal people were an inferior and primitive race and that the superior white culture must be preserved.

We have many testimonies to this time and fictional recreations of it.

M M RICHES has written a well-researched novel dedicated ‘to the children of the Stolen Generations, their families and communities.’ She has not only researched archives and literature, she has walked and talked with many who shared with her their personal histories. She speaks with them, she does not speak for them, and keeps a fine balance between fictionalising women and children who were victims of these policies and respecting their integrity and autonomy.

The central, initially naive point of view is that of the young woman, Sarah, who enters the story as a novice. She is sent to Cobbs Crossing in the Mallee to join the teaching staff at the local orphanage, St Cuthberts.

Tension grows between her desire to practice obedience and her growing disillusionment with her faith, her horror at the cruel disciplinary practices and double standards whereby the children do hard menial work, are dressed in threadbare clothes and kept on subsistence rations, while the nuns enjoy comfort and plentiful meals. She learns that the Mother Superior has taken into the orphanage two children fathered by a wealthy local station-owner, given them false names and is hiding their identity from their mother. This policy is justified by the dogma that these children are ‘not well suited to academic learning’, and need to be trained in farm work for boys, and domestic work for girls. They must speak English only and have no contact with ‘full-bloods’ or their families. ‘It’s for their own good,’ Mother Sebastian tells Sarah.

The first half of the story unravels Sarah’s illusions and confronts her with the harsh realities and deceptions of this regime. She becomes involved in the fates of the children fathered by the station owner, and forms a friendship with Mick O’Mara, a local journalist and trenchant critic of the Catholic Church and its support of the State’s management of Aboriginal affairs. A series of events lead Sarah to become a ‘dangerous radical,’ expelled from St Cuthberts. This is her moment of truth, of realisation that she entered the order for the wrong reasons. She resumes her original intention of training in nursing with the desire to nurse in New Guinea, to repay what she sees as a debt to the ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy Angels’ who saved the lives of her father and many other soldiers on the Kokoda Trail.

Meanwhile, she and Mick work together to expose the cruelty and deceptions of the regime at St Cuthberts and to reunite the Aboriginal woman, Pearl with the two children stolen from her. There are many vivid scenes that enact Sarah’s difficult progress from powerlessness to claiming a voice, telling the truth, listening to her heart and following her own path rather than the one chosen for her. Sarah has two voices calling her, one of conscience (the debt owed) and one of desire for union with Mick. Which will she follow?

This complex, engaging story takes us into the heart of how it must have been in the sixties, showing us the suffering and despair of a subjugated people, the cruelty and arrogance of Church and State, the prejudice of social norms, and the courage of those who challenged the regime and sought to change it.

The Crossing is well-researched, well-constructed, engaging and illuminating in its recreation of a time when mores were shifting and rules beginning to be rewritten. I highly recommend it to any reader who cares about our history and the need to rewrite it. I think it would be an excellent text for secondary schools and for undergraduate reading lists.