A historical novel about a young woman who grows up among aborigines as a white-skinned “freak,” until she stumbles across a dying white man and discovers the world of her own people. 1986.
Okay, Golden Urchin was published a little later than the books I tend to review on ALB. I try to keep my year cut-off at 1984, aka 30 years ago, which I’ll be the first to admit is a bit of an arbitrary rule. I have several Madeleine Brent books on my to-read shelf, and I chose this one simply because the plot description intrigued me.
Within the impressive span of about two pages, I knew this was the book for me. Holy cow, I thought, this is unlike anything I’ve ever read before! (And that’s saying something.) I flipped back to the copyright page, glimpsed that year, 1986, and went oops. But those opening pages were so compelling, I decided to ignore my usual cut-off date, just this once. I simply HAD to read this book.
What makes those opening pages so persuasive? Well, I’d say it’s the point of view, and the narration that conveys it. Golden Urchin begins with our main character (for now called Mitji, or “white woman”) describing her life among the aborigines. As a baby, she was found by a tribeswoman who had recently lost her own baby. The aborigines saw this foundling as an offering from the gods, a means of retribution for the deceased aborigine baby. The tribeswoman raised Mitji, acting as a mother toward her. Still, all of her life Mitji has been kept apart from the tribe, regarded as something of a freak, what with her light skin, pointy nose, green eyes, freckles, and fiery red hair.
Mitji tells us about her last days living among the tribe. Her surrogate mother was recently sent away to another tribe for marriage, so Mitji has been, in effect, abandoned once again. She has one tenuous friend, a young man who dreams of becoming a powerful sorcerer. But Mitji has no prospects among the tribe. She is regarded as neither male nor female. She isn’t allowed to marry, nor is she allowed to take part in the tribe’s rituals, including the coming-of-age rites.
Then Yuma too turns against Mitji, and now she’s completely an outcast. She decides to leave the tribe and go walkabout, in search of the tribe of the white-skinned people she’s heard about. Once she finds the white people, she plans to beg and persuade them to accept her into their tribe. Remember that according to Mitji, she is not truly a white person, either; she is simply a freak.
So off she goes into the desert, armed only with basic tools and provisions. I absolutely LOVED the sections of Golden Urchin, such as this walkabout section, where we get to witness Mitji’s survival skills, finely honed to this very difficult climate. For instance, to find sustenance in the desert, she’ll sometimes dig up water frogs, squeeze out the water stored in their bellies, then cook the frogs up. I’m a vegan, and I still find this process fascinating!
Mitji is walking for a while, then one day she comes across a strange animal, which she recognizes by another aborigine’s description. It’s a camel. She explores the packs the camel is carrying, finding all kinds of new objects.
But the strangest thing of all was an object mostly hidden in a long thin bag of hide. It was partly of wood, partly of the hard substance, and when I slid it a little way out of the bag holding it I saw that the hard substance became round and straight like a thick stick, but judged from the weight that it might be hollow like a reed. It was greasy to touch, and from it came a smell I had never known before, a fierce, sharp smell of something burnt. To me it was a bad smell, dangerous, and I quickly let the thing slide down into its bag again.
(She’s found a rifle.) It’s an interesting guessing game, as she describes the shapes and colors of objects, for us to “translate” the common items she’s seeing. If you’d never seen paper or coins or a gun before, how might you interpret them? I think the author must have had some fun writing this part, too. It shows. It also carries the narrative’s authenticity to a whole new, unexpected level.
Mitji continues walking, this time with the camel by her side. Later in the day, she comes across a dead white man. She sees that he was killed by the sun, his tongue black and swollen. Mitji studies him, explores his pockets, but doesn’t linger, for fear that his spirit is hovering nearby and will be displeased. So, the camel by her side and some useful items like the canteen added to her person, she continues walking.
The next white man she finds is still alive, but just barely. He has a head injury, and his inability to move has led to severe dehydration. Mitji, ever resourceful, finds him water and food. As he regains his strength, they begin to (try to) communicate with each other. When he’s fit for travel, he and Mitji set off together, back toward the place he came from.
What follows is the process by which Mitji, outcast and freak aborigine, becomes Meg, an intelligent, kind, and intrepid young white woman. Along the way she meets some very nice people who sincerely care about her. She also discovers that, even in this remote Australian outback, someone knows about her existence and, what’s more, they seem to want her dead. In the process of regaining her true identity, Mitji-now-Meg travels from Australia to Europe and England, before finally being put to the ultimate survival test on southern Africa’s treacherous Skeleton Coast.
The story of Golden Urchin is inherently strong, but to me what really sells this book is the main character herself. She’s the kind of protagonist whom you envy, even if her situations are usually far from desirable. You envy her skills and her friends; you admire her kindness and her clear head. And yet, most amazingly of all (especially because she’s created by a man; Madeleine Brent is actually Peter O’Donnell), Mitji/Meg is incredibly realistic.
I strongly recommend Golden Urchin, especially if you’re drawn to historical fiction featuring strong women in interesting locales, such as Each Bright River, Sara Dane, The River Witch, or even Cimarron. I will definitely be reading another Madeleine Brent book…and I don’t think I’ll be able to wait very long!