Thursday, May 18, 2023

The Passion of Private White by Don Watson


 The Passion of Private White by Don Watson.  Scribner Australia 2022

Reviewed by Frank McKone

We often speak of the importance, indeed the need, for people of all cultures to ‘tell their own stories’.  This idea is even now built into the Australian Government’s National Cultural Policy – Revive: A Place for Every Story ( > publications ).

Commonly it is thought that fiction has an advantage over reporting fact with intelligent commentary.

Fiction, by getting to the heart of the story, can reveal deep truth.  Facts may be true, but can leave the reader at least cool, if not cold.

Don Watson, in The Passion of Private White, proves that an entirely factual record can be as heart-warmingly truthful as any novel.  And, like the best novelist, he can disturb our understanding of humankind in deeply personal ways.

There is mystery on Page 5:

Dr White, Neville, “had about him a bit of the ‘Anthropologist as Hero’, Susan Sontag’s designation for people who pursued ‘one of the rare intellectual vocations which do not demand a sacrifice of one’s manhood’.  (It was an odd choice of words given the number of famous women in the field, but we know what she meant.)

And there is a central character – a long-term confidant of Dr Neville White – who we meet on Page 7.  This is Tom who “spoke Ritharrngu, the language group (or ‘matha’ meaning ‘tongue’ or ‘voice’) to which his Bidingal clan belongs.

But then, on Page 292 we read “In the crowd near the coffin room, Wanakiya keened.  With yidaki, sticks and singing, they came forward, men and women on their knees.  Each raised a hand holding a plastic flower, to be placed by the carers on the coffin.  Plastic flowers would have been traditional feathered sticks and strings.  …A shooting star fell blazing in the west.

Who was Tom Gunaminy Bidingal, the man who steadfastingly held on to his Yolgnu social principles?  Why did he die honoured with plastic flowers?

What was the nature of Vietnam Veteran Private White’s passion?

This year, in September 2023, I can only hope, Tom’s voice will at last be heard in our vote for The Voice.  Don Watson’s head and heart story will surely help make it happen.

It is a continuing, terribly complicated, yet absolutely fascinating story which will challenge your own preconceptions, whether you are woman, man or other gender; Indigenous or Non-Indigenous; progressive or conservative.

Read The Passion of Private White for the good of everyone.

Neville and Tom on his last return to Donydji, 2012
Photo © Neville White

Author: Don Watson
Photo by Susan Gordon-Brown