Gare, Sally and Freda Marnie Nicholls. Outback Teacher: the inspiring story of a remarkable young woman, life with her students and their adventures in remote Australia. Allen & Unwin, 2022. RRP: $34.99, 304pp, ISBN: 9781761065347.
In Outback Teacher Sally Gare, now in her 80s, reflects on her life and early years teaching in the Australian Outback. Written in collaboration with Freda Marnie Nicholls, one of Gare’s former students (now a journalist and author), this memoir explores many important themes that surround the confluence of white Australia and Indigenous Australia, such as the treatment of Indigenous Australians, land rights and the Stolen Generations. These themes are explored through the lens of a young Gare navigating her new job as a teacher, all while learning to be away from home and her support systems.
Gare’s experiences in the 1950s and 1960s, during postings at places like Forrest River Mission northeast of Wyndham in the Kimberley, and the Port Headland Staging School, represent a time in Australia’s history now foreign to the majority of its population. But they reveal much about our contemporary cultural divides and the need to prioritise Indigenous Australian affairs. As a young woman, Gare failed to understand the impact of British colonialism on Indigenous communities; this creates moments of conflict for her as an otherwise caring and genuine person. At times it is uncomfortable to read Gare’s early thoughts on her situation, but she is open about her early misconceptions and uses these moments as a way to reflect on what she has learned. Here, Gare recounts writing home to her family as the lack of staff on the Forrest River Mission begins to take its toll:
In places like Forrest River, where the wildlife quickly multiples and is plentiful, the Oombulgurri could easily stay on their Country in their natural state and enjoy life. But they no longer ‘owned’ that land. Even if we as Westerners thought they were miserable, they weren’t, because they seemed to have a much stronger and more vital ability to take what comes, both good and bad. In desert regions it would certainly be tougher, but I couldn’t see the value in just feeding and clothing for the sake of it. I saw a need for them to help themselves, not just have others do all the work for them, which it seemed like we were doing, or so I felt at the time. (124)
Gare’s memoir highlights how, throughout this period, the Christian religion was deeply intertwined within the Australian community and Indigenous Australian affairs. The missions which Gare was a part of functioned with the aim of evangelising Indigenous Australians, and saw faith as the starting point for cultural assimilation. Gare’s reflections force the reader to acknowledge, and sit with the reminder that, for the first ten years of her teaching career, Indigenous Australians were not counted in the national census and were not considered Australian citizens. Throughout the memoir, Gare argues for integration over assimilation, a concept she attributes to her father’s teachings and values; her writing highlights the lack of support for Indigenous people and culture, both then and now.
Gare’s time at the Forrest River Mission situates her in Australian literary history. While there, she fostered her friendship with Randolph Stow (1935–2010), the Australian-born writer, novelist and poet who used the mission as inspiration for his famous novel To the Islands, winner of the 1958 Miles Franklin Literary Award. Gare also describes life at Jigalong mission in the Pilbara, where she came face to face with the forced removal of mixed heritage Indigenous children from their families—including Molly Kelly, whose story of escape and return to home has been told and celebrated in the book, and then later in the film adaption of, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence. Gare’s experiences place her at a meeting point of white Australian narratives and Indigenous Australian narratives.
There is a moment that has stayed with me since reading this memoir, in which Gare reflects on her experiences as she leaves the Forrest River Mission following her initial two-year posting. She writes:
I had arrived at Forrest River expecting to teach Aboriginal students, to help them integrate into white society, but in turn I had been a student learning about the Oombulgurri culture and way of life. I now knew how to hunt bush tucker, to dance and sing corroboree, and had a heartfelt appreciation of a truly special place. (140)
This passage signifies hope for repairing cultural divides in Australia and emphasises the need for receptive attitudes towards Indigenous people and cultures, as it marks the start of Gare’s journey to understanding the impacts of colonialism.
We often rationalise the outback as a vast landscape with incredible distances between places, but Gare’s rendition of her experiences throughout this memoir tells a story of multiple small, interconnected towns that have distinguished themselves across time and space in the Australian nation. Outback Teacher is an accessible reflection that addresses the confronting aspects of our past through the eyes of a naïve white woman who had to adapt to the realities and impact of colonialism on Indigenous Australian people and culture, armed with only limited teaching supplies and a compassionate heart.
Julia Garas is a PhD candidate at Curtin University researching contemporary Australian literature and television. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from the University of Western Australia.