To The Islands

Before this, I only knew Randolph Stow as the author of the children's book, Midnite, though I was aware of him as being one of those Australia authors that one should probably read. To the Islands was recommended by a friend, who said it had changed the way he looked at the world; with that endorsement, how could I delay?

To the Islands is a truly remarkable novel. Written when Stow was only 22 (!!), it won the Miles Franklin Award as well as the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 1958. It's extraordinary to think that this book was written 64 years ago and yet the issues that it deals with are still as thorny and relevant as ever: relationships between First Nations peoples and white colonisers; relationships to country; different kinds of knowledge; the anguish of dispossession and slaughter; inherited trauma. 

To the Islands is a short novel, but not an easy one to read. Its pages are filled with pain. This might have been one of the first works of Australian fiction that treats Aboriginal people as fully rounded, complex characters in their own right, rather than as a backdrop to white drama. Stow stated that part of the intent of the book was to argue a case for supporting the church mission stations, which as he saw it, provided essential services, education and protection to the people dwelling on remote lands. Others may not agree with this assessment; but the fact remains,  it's still a wickedly difficult problem to draw the balance between preserving culture and traditional knowledge of country, with access to medical help, educational opportunities and even basic services like power and water that other Australian citizens expect as their right.

To the Islands is an astonishing, insightful, angry and grief-filled novel from a very young author. I'm very glad to have read it.

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