Aboriginal family history, tragedy and satire in Thea Astley’s “It’s Raining in Mango”

The history of the Laffey family, as told in Thea Astley’s It’s Raining in Mango,
intersects with that of Bidiggi and his descendants, beginning with young George and Bidiggi’s friendship in the 1870s and ending in the 1980s with Will’s friendship to both Charley and Billy Mumbler. The tragedy underlying Australia’s colonisation begins early in the book with the slaughter of Aboriginal people, continues with the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families, and concludes with the unfair treatment of Aboriginal people by police, bartenders and the violent fight instigated by members of the general community. Astley’s depiction of these events forms a biting satire upon the treatment of Aboriginal people and shows that while many things have improved over time, many of the underlying racist attitudes have not, and damage from the past reverberates through the generations and into the future.

The tragic representation of race relations begins with the town of Bowen being proclaimed and “cleared of black land-owners” (19), a choice of words that sets the tone by implying the native inhabitants were seen by the settlers as nothing more than trees that needed to be cleared. This dehumanisation is continued with the words of a miner to Jessica Olive, as her son George hides his face from the violence: “they’re not human, missus” (27). This first chapter contains a repeated vomiting motif, from the seasickness on the Florence Irving to the eight-year old George “retching into the grass” (30) after encountering the bones of dead Aboriginal men. This visceral reaction to the grotesque sight of the dead bodies emphasises the inhumanity of the miner’s actions and thus ironically satirises their portrayal of the natives as not being human. Cornelius’ more measured opinions and the green shoots of George’s budding friendship with Bidiggi, while providing some hope, also satirically highlight just how different the colonial experience could have been, if managed with basic human respect and dignity.

The crushed spirit of the Aboriginal people is highlighted in the chapter “Heart Is Where The Home Is”, in which policeman come to forcibly remove Aboriginal children from their parents and are surprised at the lack of resistance. Astley writes that “the passivity finally stuck in their guts” (83), demonstrating their crushed spirit, also present in the 1980s when Billy is cheated by a barman and “the other blacks dropped their eyes” (194), unwilling to help. In the eponymous chapter, “It’s Raining In Mango”, it’s revealed that George’s son, Will Laffey, is friends with Billy and his father Charley, both descendants of Bidiggi. The relentless rain of the wet season symbolises the relentless and perennial oppression that the Aboriginal people face, year upon year. While the nature of the oppression has certainly changed and lessened in its more horrific aspects, it still bubbles below the surface and erupts in the pouring rain in Mango, outside the pub. While travelling to Mango, Billy comes to a realisation:

The circle might be perfect, containing its own finality.

The nobility of the forward line his great-grandfather Bidiggi had advised in the tribal language he had almost forgotten now except as sounds that picked at his dreams. The forward line.

He has travelling that way through the rain to Mango. (194)

While rain is cleansing and Billy follows his natural calling home to Mango, he has to travel through “bulldust slush” (195) on his way and it all ends in further oppression and violence. Astley satirises the role of police in Sergeant Purdy’s reaction to the fight, “full of the realisation of his own irony and unfairness” (203) and with his “self-hate reached out to settle on this mud-covered shape”, Billy’s “mashed face” (204). The policeman realises the unfairness of his treatment of the Aboriginal people, yet is unable to escape from the cycle, one that Australian society is trapped in.

Works Cited

Astley, Thea. It’s Raining in Mango. Vic.: Penguin, 2010. Print.

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