The Passion of Private White by Don Watson [9/10]

Don Watson, a writer of rare clarity and expressiveness, has penned his master work with The Passion of Private White. It relates the story of Neville White, an anthropologist (and mate of Watson), who in 1974 begins working in a non-urban indigenous community in harsh Arnhem Land country. Watson frames the tale as the PTSD-style blowback from White’s Vietnam War combat stints, as a way for the anthropologist to channel his huge energy and perfectionism and his “passion” for his indigenous friends. Over nearly half a century since, the community of Donydji has waxed and waned, and changed, and throughout, White has been there recording their lives, their language, their stories of Country, but also advocating for them and providing assistance. A core step in the narrative is when White assembles teams of his war veteran friends to make annual pilgrimages to Donydji to build and clean and grow, in other words, to be of service to the community. The author lovingly sets out the entire history of colonisation of Arnhem Land, the arc of ups and downs of Neville White’s efforts, amidst a period when Aboriginal/indigenous affairs underwent huge political shifts. We, the reader, get to know Tom, the community’s leader, and Christopher, the wrecker, and Ricky the apprentice mechanic, plus a cast of dozens. We witness the rank incompetence of all forms of oversight, from the missions to the miners to the bureaucrats. Throughout, the author provides cogent, intellectual coverage of the issues, at the same time as building a nuanced portrayal of White, a hero by any other name. Important and brilliant … read The Passion of Private White, please.

One Reply to “The Passion of Private White by Don Watson [9/10]”

  1. Absolutely agree. It’s was a tough read at times as it becomes clear the gaps are not only health, education, safety, physical amenity, and on and on. Watson’s empathy and insight helped me understand the biggest gap is between my culture and world view and that of the First Peoples of this land.

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