I grabbed Don Watson's latest book, The Passion of Private White, from the library after hearing the author speak about it on the radio (the way I usually hear about new books these days). Ostensibly the story of Neville White, an anthropologist who has worked for many years in an Arnhem Land community and has ended by forfeiting his academic 'objectivity' to intertwine his own life with those of his Indigenous 'subjects,' The Passion of Private White is actually more about the Yolgnu people of Donydji -- their searing history, their complicated personal politics and their never-ending battles with well-meaning but inflexible and short-sighted bureaucracy.
This is a devastating book, setting out in Watson's limpid, carefully controlled prose, a litany of cultural clashes and personality conflicts, the history of a fifty year relationship between one man and a community, with all the trust and affection, the misunderstandings and jealousies and resentments, that any fifty year relationship contains. But the difference between Neville White and the other do-gooders from down south is that he has stuck around, finding a way to heal his personal Vietnam trauma through his deep involvement with Donydji, and drawing in some of his fellow veterans too. It's inspiring, but also dispiriting, to read about houses built and workshops set up by the veterans at a tenth of the cost and time that government contractors would take; and it's dispiriting, too, to see the failures of some of those efforts, because people are people, and things are complicated.
But there is hope here, too, of a different way of relating to people in remote communities and making things better -- with respect, and listening, and patience, and a stubborn, persistent kind of love.