Doebin is an island reserve for Aborigines off the coast of north Queensland. In 1930 the superintendent goes insane after his wife dies. He sets fire to his house, kills his children, and wounds others in a bloody rampage that ends in his being shot by an Aboriginal man. Interestingly, this superintendent was a benevolent dictator who actually appeared to care for the Aborigines, whom he considered childlike and treated in a strict paternalistic manner. In return, his charges respected him and called him "Uncle Boss."

The book tells this story from the perspectives of several different characters and reveals how the events of 1930 influenced their lives and bound them together in mysterious ways. We learn of the influence these events had on the subsequent lives of the island's little community: doctor, matron, schoolteacher, boarding house operator, priest, and Manny Cooktown, the man who shot and killed the madman, Captain Brodie.

Time moves on, things change. World War II comes and goes. On Doebin Island, however, Aboriginal people continue to be treated like prisoners. Benign paternalism is replaced by out-and-out hatred during the reigns of a succession of superintendents, who treat their Aboriginal charges as if they were animals.


It is difficult to understand how unjustly the Aboriginal people of Australia were treated by their European countrymen from the time the English arrived in Botany Bay (1788) right through the middle of the 20th century. The central event of this novel takes place in 1930, when Aborigines were still confined to reserves and treated like prisoners in their own country.

For example, they are forced to work for low or nonexistent wages, obey a curfew, and need the boss's permission to get married. The novel ends sometime in the mid 1950's, when the situation appears not to have changed very much--a group of men face imprisonment for protesting the conditions under which they live.

Remarkably, the Aborigines only became full citizens of Australia in 1969, when legislation first permitted them to vote and be counted in the census. Only in very recent years have Aboriginal people successfully regained some of their land as a result of decisions in the Australian court system. For example, Uluru (the former "Ayer's Rock), one of the most sacred places in the entire continent, was only restored to its rightful custodians within the last few years.


Penguin Australia

Place Published

Ringwood, Victoria, Australia



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