Sister Heart by Sally Morgan – a study in empathy

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is a story, written in verse, from the perspective of a child.

We don’t find out how old the child is, nor what her real name is.

But we do learn a lot about her.

The book follows ‘Annie’, a child of the Stolen Generation, on her journey away from her family, to a place filled with other stolen children, where she’s taught how to speak, think, behave in the correct way. Where she hears things like this:

We only speak English here

English is the language of kings

We never speak native gibberish.

and:

Annie looks too wild to be in school

Help her comb her hair

flatten it down

This is not the bush!

Basically, everything she is is what they want to strip away from her, and all the other children. Everything that connects them to their homes, to their families, to the places they belong.

It’s a harrowing story, a difficult journey to read. My soul felt heavy reading it, and my heart cried for all the truth that was in it.

Because, perhaps this book is fiction, and ‘Annie’ isn’t a real person, in the technical sense. But she is real in a far worse way. There are thousands of Annie’s and Janey’s and Tim’s and Nancy’s – all stolen from their homes, without even knowing why, losing all connection with their mothers and fathers, with their roots, and forever being changed because of it.

Morgan weaves the story in such a beautiful and heartbreaking way, breaking it up into four chapters, each showing a different side to Annie’s grief. She doesn’t fit in at school, and she doesn’t want to fit in. She only wants her mother, and her little sister, and the life she always knew.

Inside

we are all secrets

dreaming secret dreams

of another life.

As hard to read as it is, especially from the perspective of a child, it is still so important for adults and children to read. The way it is told makes it impossible for a reader to not feel empathy for our protagonist and her friends. It builds empathy with every word, every line, every moment that Annie speaks of, stitches it into the readers’ hearts, and embeds itself into our minds, so that, long after the book is over (and it is a very short story), we’re still thinking about Annie, and all the girls and boys just like her around Australia who were snatched and stolen, whose parents could do nothing but watch, whose trauma still lurks around every darkened corner.

And books like these need to exist, because there are people out there who need to see these events from certain perspectives. People like an officer in this book who says:

Why the Government’s

wasting schooling on

ungrateful kids like you

beats me

It was the government’s choice to steal these children. But they had their supporters. And, with all the race-fuelled hatred that infests all societies, I’m sure those supporters are still around, and have passed their racism and bigotry and discrimination on to their children, just as those of the Stolen Generation passed on their trauma. Those supporters who thought stealing children was the right thing to do, that Indigenous Australians were lucky they were being treated like this, that they could have it so much worse, that they deserved so much worse.

It sounds wretched

despicable

completely unbelievable

But these people are out there.

And the only way to minimise their effect on the world is to support books like these, books from different viewpoints, which talk about important things, difficult things, that oftentimes people push to the very back of their minds, because thinking about it at all is too terrible. But, as I said in my review of Archie Roach’s Tell Me Why, we owe it to these people to read their stories, because if it’s hard for us to read, how hard must it have been to live through?

This book is beautiful and tragic, and all people should read it, and others like it.

Seek out stories told by people different to you.

This is the only way we can cultivate and grow our empathy.

And empathy is the most important thing one can possess.

If birds have wings

so do songs

Tonight

I will send a song

on the moonlight

to my mum

Further Reading:

The Stolen Generation | 1988 Protest | Australia Day or Invasion Day? | National Sorry Day

Indigenous causes to donate to and support:

World Vision | Charity Guide | Indigenous Organisations & Campaigns to Support | ANTaR

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