Review: Jandamarra by Mark Greenwood and Terry Denton

Jandamarra, written by Mark Greenwood, illustrated by Terry Denton (Allen & Unwin, 2013)


written by Mark Greenwood, illustrated by Terry Denton
(Allen & Unwin, 2013)


Presented in a quasi-graphic-novel format, Jandamarra is a picture book for older readers/teenagers that tells the story of an Australian Aboriginal hero. Jandamarra was a member of the Bunuba people from the Kimberley region of Western Australia who lived towards the end of the nineteenth century, a time of turmoil and conflict between white settlers claiming and fencing the land and the land’s Aboriginal owners.

As a young man, Jandamarra faced dilemmas of loyalty. He was accused of stealing a sheep and sent to prison; he broke the sacred kinship law of his people, and escaped punishment from the Bunuba by seeking refuge from the police, who in turn recruited him as a tracker. The capture of his own uncle, who had taught him about his heritage, forced him to come to a decision about where his loyalties lay. His subsequent actions then and afterwards until his violent death turned him irrevocably into an outlaw to the white settlers and a legendary hero to his own Bunuba people. Even when everyone believed he had been killed, he emerged once again to ambush troopers and attack farmland. He knew how to hide in the crevices and secret passages of the mountains and only when the troopers recruited Micki, a ‘tracker with mystical powers’, were they finally able to track him down – but although they took his life, readers emerge from the story with a strong conviction that they never got his spirit.

Mark Greenwood and Terry Denton have created a very strong narrative together. Although there are no speech bubbles (and in fact, very little direct speech altogether), the layout of the illustrations often takes on a graphic-novel structure: nowhere more so than the sequence of Jandamarra making his way through the mountains via a deep, narrow passage. As well as lending an immediacy to the written narrative, this has the added benefit of making the amount of text less intimidating – an important aspect, since this is probably an ideal book to put under the nose of young men who are reluctant readers. Neither the language nor the illustrations shirk from depicting the violence that runs through the whole story: from the line of Bunuba prisoners with their hands shackled and chained to each other by the neck, while ‘scorching sun on iron blistered the prisoners’ flesh during the long march to Derby Jail’ and the boy Pigeon (we don’t yet know his Bunuba name) peeps out from behind a tree; to the very end when, ‘before the sun had burnt off the dew [Micki] was on the blood trail’ that led to the dying Jandamarra, bleeding from several shot wounds and mercifully ‘dreaming of the living water.’

At the beginning of the book, its creators acknowledge the assistance they received from Bunuba elder Dillon Andrews, the custodian of Jandamarra’s story, and the permission of the Bunuba people to retell it: an important consideration for anyone seeking to publish an Aboriginal story. It is apt that the story is prefaced by a Bunuba statement that reminds readers of the relevance of the story today: ‘Burrudi yatharra thirrili ngarra‘: ‘We are still here and strong’: and indeed in 2012, the year before the book’s publication, the Bunuba people won their native title claim for a part of their land.

Although there is no back matter with the book, there are excellent ‘Teachers Notes‘ available from the publisher – my only quibble there is that they recommend the book for ages 7-12 years, whereas I would suggest it is more suitable for older children, both because of the violence of the story and because of the complexities that it raises (some of which, indeed, are addressed in the suggestions for discussion), including arguments for and against violence.

I suspect that Jandamarra’s story is virtually unknown outside Australia. This beautifully crafted book not only brings this historical figure to the notice of a potentially wide young audience, it raises questions that are relevant beyond the Kimberley to issues of cultural awareness in many parts of society across the world today.

Marjorie Coughlan
May 2015

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