BOOK REVIEW: A Tear in the Soul by Amanda Webster
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo
For years Amanda Webster had an idealistic view of the past. The smart, sixth-Generation Australian, who has published books about autism and whose father and grandfather were respected doctors, had assumed that everyone – including her Indigenous school friends – had enjoyed a comfortable upbringing that was similar to the her own.
Webster was born in Kalgoorlie. For years she attended a school with some local Indigenous children who lived in the nearby Kurrawang Mission. This institution was set up by Brethren missionaries along with assistance from the Department of Native Affairs. It was a period in Australia’s history where the affairs of Indigenous Australians were controlled by a White Chief Protector who lived in the local community. In the course of her investigation, Webster was horrified to discover that her grandfather once held this position.
A Tear in the Soul is a hybrid of memoir, analysis, and some imagined scenes where Webster imagines what might have happened to her friends (a more realistic view to counteract the rosier beliefs and imaginations she held previously) as well as her family’s own complicity in the mistreatment of the aboriginal people. Webster attempts to reconnect with her best friend from childhood, a resident from Kurrawang named Bronwyn. Webster initially finds it difficult to find out any information about Kurrawang or to locate Bronwyn in the present day. Webster’s starting point is Gregory Ugle, the elder brother of Tony, another of her school friends. In time, Ugle becomes a friend of Webster’s. He is also a valuable source of information about Indigenous culture and the Mission and he helps Webster become aware of her own racist blunders (for example: asking the Indigenous men if she could join them on a hunting expedition, and as a child when she once asked the cringeworthy, “Are Aboriginals people?”)
The book packs a lot in and is a complex one, weaving together many different stories of the Indigenous people Webster interviews. It is saddening to hear that some of the inhabitants of the Mission were members of the Stolen Generation, and that the prevailing idea at the time was to separate the Aboriginal children from their families and country as it related to their specific tribe without exploring other options. It’s also rough to read Urgle’s descriptions of how even the children’s adopted home was far from sacrosanct to the White Australians.
A Tear in the Soul throws up a lot of questions about Australia’s past while at the same time giving us some ideas about how things could be improved in the present and future. Amanda Webster has dug deep, become more culturally aware, and written an honest and frank book about some of her friends and acquaintances from childhood by trying to capture as much of their stories and the truth as possible. While the profits from this book will go towards supporting Indigenous people from Kalgoorlie, perhaps in the future it would be good to hear things directly from the sources themselves. A Tear in the Soul is a visceral book that will shock and anger you at times and move you at other moments. But perhaps its best message is one of hope so that we may all attempt a fragile reconciliation and celebrate everyone’s stories for what they really are.
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