‘The Spirit of Barrumbi’ by Leonie Norrington

This is one of the books I’ve picked up at the Lifeline bookfair over the years.  It has sat in a pile of similar books inside my study, and I am not sure in which year I acquired it.  Written by Leonie Norrington, The Spirit of Barrumbi is not the first in the series but it is quite accessible.  Though it uses some (indigenous) language and very Australian slang, the context is often sufficient to understand the meanings of terms.  There is also a glossary at the back of the book.

The story, which I do not want to spoil too much, involves the young boy Dale and his brother Sean, as well as the members of the remote Northern Territory community of Long Hole.  While visiting Barrumbi, Dale has a dream that foreshadows some ominous events.  While he sleeps – and dreams – his older brother Sean sneaks away from the group to investigate a dangerous area that he has been told not to visit.

The Spirit of Barrumbi deals with topics that are not only rarely seen in Australian children’s literature, but that have indigenous spiritual significance and require a sensitive and highly informed basis to be carried off properly.  Norrington mentions on her site the issues that face non-indigenous writers and readers when handling culturally sensitive things like this, as well as the vital desperate need for more literature not only including indigenous characters but that is accessible to indigenous communities and children.

Within the story issues regarding racial identity, taboo knowledge and places, traditional law and punishment, and simply the very nature of life in remote north Australia are handled so well that I am slightly in awe.  The present tense that so often irritates me in fiction carries a sense in the prose of the immediacy of childhood and the differences of perceptions of time and space in different places and cultures.

What is most striking is not the culture – though that is wonderful – or the language, but the childhood.  A lot of the story is told through playing, curiosity and the mistakes that all children make while learning.  The voices of the characters, especially the children, are so vivid I could hear them in my head.  The way that parents dismiss the children, too, and reprimand them feels far more natural than what I have found in most children’s literature.

I am in love with Norrington’s writing for the themes and stories and indigenous cultural depth, with the comfortable Australian feel of her prose.  I am impressed with her writing and characterisations.   Envious.  J.K. Rowling would kill house elves(I imagine) to be able to approximate the spontaneity and life in Norrington’s characters.  In many ways I loved this book for the same reasons that I enjoy reading Enchanted glass; I resonated with the flaws in the characters and thus they came alive for me.  Whether you have an interest in children’s literature, subtle fantasy/supernatural themes, indigenous Australian or just Australian culture, you should make sure to look Norrington up.

Other reviews of The Spirit of Barrumbi:

A basic summary of the plot including spoilers I omitted at Aussie Reviews

A short review at Rollercoaster, the A(ustralian)BC’s youth platform

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