'How little I had known then. . . I had not known it possible for there to be people with hair a colour other than black and skin a colour other than brown. . . I did know now, but I felt like one of those magic vessels that could never be full in those stories told by the ancients. I felt like I could never know enough.' (p 214)
A very special book
This is not only a gripping read, but a hugely important book too. It is also an exciting, terrifying, moving and deeply disturbing one. It is a story that made me reflect profoundly on the world in which we live, where it has come from and where it is going. It took me to a place I have never been, a culture I have never known - and it helped me to realise, with shock and with grief, that all along it has been part of me, and I of it.
It is always good for children to be given access to places, times and cultures far distant from their own. For those who have roots in such cultures, it is good to recognise themselves in books, helpful in understanding who they are and where they come from. But for all others too, it is an important part of discovering their world culture and heritage. And when all of this is done as well as it is here, then it is a very splendid thing indeed. Such is the quality and sincerity of this writing that it doesn't take more than a few pages of Bone Talk for readers to be transported far away in both time and place - and yet to feel they completely belong there.
There are two main themes to the story. It is the tale of Samkad, a boy from Bontok in the Philippines in 1899, who desperately wants 'the cut', the ceremony of circumcision that will initiate him as a man of his tribe. Echoing this, it is also the story of Luki, a highly spirited girl of the same tribe. She very much wants to be a boy, or perhaps, more accurately, wants to have the freedoms, opportunities and privileges of being a boy in a society where females are severely subjugated.
All changed, changed utterly
The other strand is that of an indigenous, tribal society whose way of life is shattered by the violent intrusion of 'advanced' western culture. In this case the aggressors are the Americans. However this particular occurrence in many ways stands representative for the 'rape' of tribal societies that occurred in many parts of the world and over a period of many decades. It was a monstrosity of which the colonial British and other Europeans were every bit as guilty, as were the immigrant white Australians and various others. Of course we must not get over-romantic about such tribal societies; this one, for example, included head-hunters. But this author never sugar-coats the realities. She merely paints them in terms of accepted 'normal' life for her protagonists
This globalisation of 'civilisation', was perhaps inevitable, even necessary. However its implementation was frequently insensitive and more often viciously cruel and unspeakably arrogant, as well as selfishly acquisitive. In many senses the way of affecting change for such societies was more barbaric than the life it changed. All of this is disturbingly and uncompromisingly laid before Candy Gourlay's young readers in Bone Talk. However, by prominently including the figure of a 'good' American healer, she also shows her young readers the dangers of stereotyping and over-generalisation, even in these extreme circumstances. Thankfully, nothing here is too simplistically polarised.
Powerfully engendering empathy
This story is rendered even more powerful by being told from the Bontok perspective, from the point of view of a boy who understandably accepts his tribal life simply as everything he knows. I think we are well aware that history is so often written by 'the winners'. It is therefore so good and so important for children to hear the voice of the conquered as opposed to the conquering, both in this specific Philippines context, and in relation to its more general relevance. Empathy is all.
Old world, new world
Writing Bone Talk as a contemporary children's novel must have presented Candy Gourlay with many challenges, but she has met them with wonderful solutions, solutions that are both imaginative and sensitive. She says, in her own concluding note, that what she has written is 'not history'. However, she has succeeded in honouring the past whilst still succeeding in producing outstanding reading for today's children. She has also provided them (and many of us adults too) with enormously valuable education. Kids need to know this stuff, and could well develop as better, richer human beings when they do. Yet the book is in no way didactic or preachy. The author takes her readers into the world of Bontok from what feels like the inside. We know and understand its people, even when we objectively would not agree with or even admire them. We understand and care for Samkad and Luki. It cleverly provides a strong girl protagonist without misleading about the essentially male-dominated society from which she came. It does not lead us to over-sentimentalise the tribal way of life, but yet it wracks us with pangs of guilt at what was done to it 'in our name'. It is a book to make us reflect on who we were, what we are and who we want to be, both as individuals and as a global society.
Another of the author's remarkable successes is the way that she ends the book, giving her young readers satisfaction and optimism about the future of the young protagonists about whom they have come to care, whilst making it totally clear that things will never and can never be the same again.
'See the tiny village, that once sat unnoticed on the mountain's knee. Now discovered. See the new road, a white ribbon cutting its way through the old forest. . . See the new people, moving in from everywhere.' (p 234)
Is the change for good or for bad? There is no easy answer and none is provided. But we are left with no illusions about the cost; or the way in which it was extracted.
Poet W B Yeats once wrote: 'All changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born.'* Here we might say, rather: 'a terrible beauty was lost'.
Enough to make you think
Perhaps most profound and deeply moving the of all are the parallels which Candy Gourlay allows us to draw between the individual fate of Samkad and that of his tribe. He spend the whole story wanting desperately to have 'the cut' and become a man. Yet, although he eventually achieves it , what he learns is that the grown-up world is full of difficulties, complications, horror and loss. Perhaps it is much the same for Bontok. That change would inevitably come sooner or later, does not make everything all right. Sometimes we are understandably lonely for the past.
'A day is made of hours. A month is made of days. A year is made of months. And a man is made of years. . . And still . . . I feel like a little boy again, lonely for my mother and father.' (p 238)
In the end, the two strands of Bone Talk are more the same story than they might superficially appear. 'The cut' is hard; it is grotesquely painful. Is it really a necessary step to growing up, to becoming a man? Or indeed, to becoming a 'civilised' people?
Bone Talk was obviously a long labour of love for Candy Gourlay. Not a moment of it was wasted, and not a word of it must ever be lost.
Amazing artwork too
To my eyes, there is another particular bonus to this book. Some of the stunning drawings of artist Kerby Rosanes are so fascinating that I am continually tempted to buy his colouring books, even though I never spend any time at all colouring-in. To find one of his amazing, intricate works on the jacket of Bone Talk makes it almost worth its price for the cover alone. (Which is not to detract from the outstanding novel itself.) He should be credited far more prominently than he is in the minuscule print on the back flap.
*In his poem Easter 1916.