3 out of 4 stars
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Native Companions is book one in the wonderful Dreamtime Mysteries trilogy that reflects Jenni Barnett’s lifelong interest in anthropology, indigenous societies, traditional medicine, and the bushmen’s survival skills in remote regions of Australia. The first part in the series paves the way for an amazing mythology of the pre-European Aboriginal tribes. In the preface, the author admits that she does not aspire toward historical accuracy, but aims at capturing their “innocence, characters, wisdom, and spirituality so vital to their survival.” Indeed, the book chronicles the daily lives of the native tribes and restores a whole world of rites, legends, customs, belief systems, and behavioral patterns.
It all starts with a dying wish and an old gum tree. A gifted part-Aboriginal anthropology student, Rex Graham, promises his dying grandmother to search for the key to her great-grandfather’s dreamtime mysteries and to publish them for the benefit of their people. To get in touch with his ancestors and their stories, Rex finds refuge under the great tree of memories called Gran Yan. Apparently, he falls asleep under the tree, but in a dreamlike trance he overhears all the legends of the bush Gran Yan passes down to younger trees and future generations.
Each of the six sections of the book focuses on a distinct stage in the tribes’ struggle to survive under the most difficult circumstances. The things that struck me as particularly unique were their extraordinary resilience, strong moral code, and fantastic respect for nature and their motherland. I absolutely loved the beautiful descriptions of the flora and fauna at Yaraan Grove, the ancient cradle of the Booran Tribe. Gran Yan, the silent witness to their history, becomes a symbol of their continuity and a repository of long-forgotten myths and legends.
As in any great epic of past ages, Native Companions exquisitely uses the tale-within-a-tale narrative technique to weave together the pivotal sequences in the tribes’ history. In accordance, section two (Dreamtime Walkabout) is subordinated to section one (Journey Forward, Looking Back) as it includes a ceremonial reenactment of the Booran tribe’s journey south-east to Yaraan Grove. Similarly, section five (Transition) is not only a sequel to Wiliwanda’s adventures in sections three (Gran Yan, The Tree of Amazing Memories) and four (Gathering of the Clans); it is also a journey forward and backwards in time since Willie the birdman gets trapped into the tree of eternity. The book ends symmetrically with section six (Dreamtime Circle) that ties all the loose ends and explains whatever remained unclear.
With splendid illustrations and a glossary of mixed-language indigenous terms, Jenni Barnett’s book creates a genuine fresco of the social, religious, and cultural life of the Aboriginal Australian tribes. Among the many warriors, hunters, or fishermen mentioned in the book, there are a few characters that stand out from the crowd and acquire legendary dimensions. For example, Ooraawoo, the tribal Booran elder and guardian of the fire, is able to communicate with the spirits of the ancient wirinuns (priests or medicine men) and gain memories of their return from the great inland desert to Yaraan Grove. Brolga and Kaii, the twin orphans of the lost Mullian tribe, pass through one trial after another to prove they are worthy of the traditional bora (initiation ceremony). Last but not least, Willie survives a major flood and, like a veritable Robinson Crusoe, makes friends with the animals and manages to survive in the wilderness. His kind heart, his unwavering bravery, and his mystical experiences undoubtedly turn him into an emblematic figure.
In all honesty, I wish I could give this book the highest rating. Unfortunately, there are more than ten punctuation mistakes that, albeit minor, force me to settle for 3 out of 4 stars. I am sure Jenni Barnett’s Native Companions will be a delight to all those who are interested in history, mythology, and anthropology. On a more general level, all those who cherish great epics of the past will be fascinated by the constellation of tales, myths, and legends. I am looking forward to reading the next book in the trilogy, Along the Waterways.
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