Review: Bila Yarrudhanggalanghuray (River of Dreams) by Anita Heiss

Wiradjuri author Anita Heiss has created a powerful historical fiction novel shaped around true events with Bila Yarrudhanggalanghuray. A story of home and belonging, the novel opens with an event that should be known to many Australians, the great flood of 1852 that almost destroyed the town of Gundagai and the local Wirajuri man, Yarri who saved the lives of many locals in his boat, working tirelessly to rescue all who were stranded. In Bila Yarrudhanggalanghuray the author blends fact with fiction to tell the story of Wagadhaany, the daughter of Yarri who survives the flood. 

Wagadhaany is working as a domestic servant for the powerful Bradley family. The Bradley family's ways are not like hers. They have imported many customs and traditions from England and believe their ways to be superior to the Wiradjuri people. Steadfastly ignorant and arrogant, they rename Wagadhaany "Wilma" pay her in rations for her services and leave her to sleep in a windowless room, when she'd really rather be back home with the people she loves and the safe and familiar way that she had been raised--where people understand the relationship that they have with their country and with each other. Following on from the flood, during which Yarri rescues Wagadhaany and the two others from the Bradley household, Wagadhaany eventually finds herself forced to move across Wiradjuri country to an unfamiliar town so that she can continue to work as an unpaid domestic servant and be a companion to Louia, a well-meaning wealthy Quaker woman who has recently married James. Life away from her family is tough, and what Wagadhanny truly wants the one thing that is denied to her through the ignorance and selfishness of others--to go home.

This was a compelling read, and a reminder that while we cannot change the past, we can acknowledge it. Author Anita Heiss perfectly showcases the feelings of isolation experienced by Wagadhaany and how even the most well meaning of people (such as Louisa,) can miss vital details and get so many things wrong. I read this one in a surprisingly short amount of time, as I was eager to know what would happen next. I loved that the narrative used Wiradjuri words along with English--something important that we rarely see in Australian fiction. My only complaint is that a certain tragic event toward the end of the novel could have been expanded upon more. Overall, though, the story is told well.

A compelling story of hope, family and belonging.

Thank you to Simon and Schuster Australia for my ARC of Bila Yarrudhanggalanghuray

This book counts toward my reading goal for the Aussie Author Challenge 2021


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