Monday, March 16, 2009

Visiting the 'real' place in 'My Place'

I've mentioned Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins wonderful book “My Place” (1987) a number of times on this blog. I used it as an example in my post on 'sense of place' in literature (here) and also focused on it as a book to read to children in a post on Australia day this year (here). In response to my second post my daughter Nicole read the book again to her three children (Jacob, Rebecca and Elsie). Jacob and Rebecca became even more interested in the book and this generated some more research and her own blog post (here). Nicole discovered that there is a 'My Place' walking tour of the area on which the book was based and yesterday we did the tour together and Nicole invited some others as well. The tour is run by a small historical society that has its home at St Peters Anglican Church one of the buildings mentioned in the book. Our tour guides were Laurel and Bob. Laurel has lived in the house that her parents bought in 1938 since her birth in 1945. She has watched the physical changes and different waves of immigration described in the first half of 'My Place' as part of her own life. She loves Tempe and isn't in a hurry to leave.

'My Place' was published in 1987 for distribution in Australia’s bicentennial year (1988) and makes a strong statement about the fact that Indigenous Australians were here for thousands of years before white settlement (there isn't space to unpack this). It is a very clever book that takes one suburban block and tells the story of this place in reverse chronological sequence decade by decade from 1988 back to 1788 when the first British Fleet landed at Botany Bay. The overall meaning of the book is shaped by multiple narrative recounts of the families who have lived in this spot, 'my Place' and the changing nature of the physical landscape and built environment.

The book has been very successful. So successful in fact that the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) is currently producing a 13 part drama series (details here) that will tell the story of one house in South Sydney told by the children who lived there over a period of 130 years. The producers suggest that it will be "an engaging living history series for children, and aims to show that everyone is part of history, and that every place has a story as old as the earth." They also plan to have an interactive website that will allow users to walk through the three dimensional recreation of the My Place house and see it change from generation to generation of children. My Place is a Chapman Pictures production for ABC TV. One source has suggested that the movie won't actually use the Tempe/St Peters area for shooting, but this remains to be seen.

Some local landmarks that feature in the book

Like many books the physical details of setting in 'My Place' don't perfectly coincide with the place that was the inspiration for the setting. The authors have taken some licence with the physical setting but have sought to accurately portray the generational, environmental and social changes that occurred from 1788 to 1988. So the general waves of immigration and the impact on the Indigenous people and the environment are fairly accurate. So too is the general shape of physical sense of place, particularly the positioning of the Cook's river, the creek that runs into it (and that becomes a canal), the brick pits, the mangroves, the rock oyster beds (you'd be brave to eat these today).

There is more licence taken with the built environment although even here the authors have maintained general faithfulness to street patterns and many building locations. The 'big tree' that is a constant is now in someone's backyard (not near McDonalds), the Church and cemetery (1838) are where St Peters is today, the brickyards (1868) are accurately located (and still exist), there was a 'Big House' (1828) across the Cook's river which Willy the Boatman ferried people to and it was most likely Tempe House that has been preserved but now has a backdrop of high rise 'posh' apartments. Mr Owen's 'posh house' (1838) did exist (although now it has a clothing factory on the site) but it wasn't located near what we think the authors mean by 'big tree'. As you can see, the authors have achieved a close paralleling even of the built environment.

Above: Tempe House, the 'Big House' across the river

Making your own version of 'My Place'

One of the wonderful things about Wheatley and Rawlins book is that as well making a strong point about Australian history and the place of Indigenous Australians it is a mini primer for local history. And as any local historian will tell you, there are as many stories about a place as there are people and their lived experiences. My Place tells one story about this place but others could have been told. For me, the tour of the area threw up lots of potential stories that I'd like to know more about. For example, when visiting St Peters church Laurel mentioned the tragic level of infant mortality in the 1800s and the fact that of the 2,000 people buried up to 1894 in the St Peters cemetery that two thirds were children and two thirds of these were under 5 years old. There are individual stories that I'd also like to know more about, like Willy the Boatman who ferried people across the river in the 1820s and is buried in an unmarked grave.

Parents and teachers might consider using the brilliant framework that Wheatley and Rawlins use in their book to do their own historical research on their community and perhaps even produced your own book. Here are a few ideas.

a) Australian children might like to use the same chronological framework with the addition of 1998 and 2008. Overseas readers of this blog could use your own framework that in many cases could cover longer timeframes and perhaps bigger time intervals. Children could be encouraged to use the same recount genre as Wheatley and Rawlins with the narrator always being a child who has lived in the place that is the focus of the retelling and who uses a map and drawings to support their story.

b) As a variation to the above you could change to genre and instead write a series of diary entries, structure it as a series of post cards or letters sent to family members in the 'home' country.

c) A further variation might be to tell the story of the place through the eyes of the Indigenous people or the immigrants who move into the area. Some might choose to add a period of Indigenous history to the story prior to European settlement.

d) You could use family history as the framework and precede known family history within Australia with that of previous generations who lived in another country, and other places. This variation would involve research on multiple 'places'.

e) Some might also like to tell the story of a house that has been lived in constantly over a long timeframe. I've thought of my own house in this way. The house was built during the 1st world war and has been home to people who were part of the different waves of British, Greek and Italian immigration throughout the last 90 years. But the history of the place can be traced back to the first British Colony (and of coruse beyond). The area adjacent to the home was settled by Rev Richard Johnson (1753-1827) the first Anglican chaplain to the British Colony who came as part of Captain Phillips' First Fleet. As well as his preaching and ministry to European and Indigenous people his excellent farming skills and helped to supply grain, vegetables and meat to Sydney from the lands that included what are now parks opposite my house.

The idea of visiting the site of a novel or children's picture book is an exciting way to bring to life aspects of the writer's craft as well as enriching learning about the content of the book in question. My Place is one of many books that lend themselves to this additional layer of enrichment.

Related Links

Wikepedia has some useful information on Tempe (here) and St Peters (here)

Other information

A special 20th anniversary edition of My Place was published in 2008. click here for more details. The new edition includes a new timeline, which traces the history of the characters in the book, as well as the history of Australia.

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