Relations with the nations
By Nick Brodie
Hardie Grant, $29.95.
As Tasmania-based historian and archaeologist Nick Brodie traced his family tree back to some of the earliest white arrivals in the Antipodes, including transported felons, he also began to observe a pattern of European settlement in Australia.
As the intricate and interweaving lives of his extended family members, especially the Brodies, the O’Raffertys and the O’Keeffes, intersected with colonial and then post-Federation Australian history, Brodie managed to uncover a series of stories of hardship and travail, of revival and treasured memory, of individual hope, and of social, economic and cultural achievement.
Hence this fascinating narrative of Australian and family history ranges from the convicts, and especially the Irish, to soldiers, sailors and jailers too, through to our early white settlers, gold miners, bushrangers, Cobb & Co coachmen, wild horsemen of the Snowy River and those who built our railways system , so crucial to the development of Australia.
Brodie broadens his richly multilayered tale to encompass familial and national involvement in the Boer War and Gallipoli, to our differing experiences of the Great Depression and the Second World War, including the Japanese air raids on Darwin in 1942. Throughout the book, he skilfully interweaves European contact with Aboriginal and Islander peoples, as well as examining the experiences of various non-Anglo-Celtic immigrant groups, including the Chinese.
Even though Brodie’s writing style is sometimes rather breathless, he conveys what life was like for a bevy of everyday Australians who have contributed so much to our colonial, national, state and community history.
In his highly personalised account, I am reminded of Professor Geoffrey Bolton’s path-breaking history of the street in North Perth in which he lived from 1939 to 1954. Published in 1998, Bolton’s ‘Daphne Street’ explored in delicious detail what life was like, not just for the local butcher, baker and grocer, but also for the children and teachers at North Perth state school and above all for the varied and various families who lived in Daphne Street.
In a similar way in Kin Brodie weaves a rich tapestry, which includes the histories of several key characters from his extended family tree. In the process, he uncovers much of what they did and the decisions they made , to marry, to move, to make money, to divorce, to migrate again and, in some cases, to commit treason.
In what proves to be a complex and entertaining narrative puzzle told through the eyes and ears of everyday Australians, Brodie’s book is somewhat archly, but nevertheless appropriately, subtitled “A Real People’s History of Our Nation.”
The heroes and heroines are what he terms “everyday folk who helped people a continent and generate a nation”. As a vehicle to help restore and sometimes create what he regards as being “a true and honest democratic history”, Brodie’s unusual narrative is told through a series of overlapping ancestral tales.
It is clear that in writing this often engrossing history, Brodie has made good and sustained use, not just of a multitude of libraries and print archives, but also of the National Library of Australia’s great electronic resource, Trove. To access details, especially about English and Irish migration to Australia, he also makes extensive use of Ancestry.com.
As well as numerous quite helpful family trees, which are scattered through the book, but are often too small to clearly read, Kin boasts some fine coloured and black-and-white photographs and other illustrations. These include three superb artworks , a sketch by John Glover of the early Hobart waterfront; a painting of Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, by Conrad Martens in 1852; and a glorious watercolour of the valley of the Ovens River in Victoria by Eugene von Guerard.
My two favourite photographs in Kin are a revealingly stark and sombre portrait of the author’s direct ancestor, Captain Neil Brodie, and another of Alexander Brodie’s squadron , the Third Regiment of NSW Mounted Infantry , before sailing to South Africa in 1901. This deployment was to aid the Mother Country, and indeed the British Empire, to fight and conquer the Boers.
These well reproduced illustrations add considerable verisimilitude to Brodie’s substantial book.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University and the author of 37 books.
The Sydney Morning Herald, July 25-26, 2015, review, Books, pp 24-25,