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Alexis Wright: Plains of Promise

This novel starts off in St Dominic’s Mission for Aborigines. As well as having the power for the protection of some eight hundred or so Aboriginal inmates, it also has a girls’ orphanage. Much of the first part of this novel concerns a seven year old girl at this orphanage. Her name is Ivy Koopundi but Errol Jipp, the missionary in charge of the orphanage has renamed her Ivy Andrews, as Andrews is a good Christian name. At the beginning of the novel, Jipp informs Ivy that her mother died that morning. Ivy is initially not too upset, not least because she does not believe it. We soon learn that her mother has killed herself as a result of Ivy being taken away from her, as she was considered an unsuitable mother. She killed herself by dowsing herself with kerosene and then setting herself alight. Following on from Ivy’s mother’s death, others kill themselves, several in the same way as Ivy’s mother. Ivy and her mother are deemed to be cursed and Ivy is made to suffer, particularly from the other girls in the orphanage, who torment her, often quite brutally.

Ivy herself turns very much in on herself but also looks up to the older girls, particularly as regards their appearance. Meanwhile, her situation gets worse. Errol Jipp and his wife do not sleep together, as his wife very much misses her grown daughters, who have moved away, and sleeps in the bed of one of them. Jipp is attracted to Ivy and he starts taking her down to the chapel and sexually assaulting her. The other girls and, indeed, the other aborigines in the encampment, are aware of this and blame Ivy for seducing Jipp (which has not, of course, happened) and she is further tormented. The aborigines even send one of their number to the country Ivy and her mother came from to investigate what they call the sickness. Things get worse for Ivy who, aged thirteen, becomes pregnant.

The book then moves on twenty years, where we find Ivy in an institution. She barely talks (Wright tells us that she is in a permanent sulk) but when a woman of Arab origin comes to help some of the inmates by setting up a belly dancing group, Ivy comes alive. She is moved to the cottage of an elderly widow near St Dominic’s Mission for Aborigines, where we get an account of their lives together. We then jump further ahead, where we meet Mary who, we soon learn, is the daughter Ivy had but never saw. Mary herself only found out that she was adopted after her adoptive parents died. She is now applying for a job with a group concerned with aboriginal rights (paying substantially less than her current, computer job), in order to learn more about her antecedents. However, she starts a messy affair with her boss, the job becomes very political, with police involvement, and she has a child. Inevitably, she tries to find her family.

Wright is clearly pulling few punches in her criticism of the way the aboriginal population of Australia were and still are treated. The missionaries who used and abused the aborigines come in for the harshest criticism but it is clear that, in her view, the situation is still grim, particularly as regards land rights. However, this is not just a polemical novel. Her people come in for her share of criticism. She states that neither Mary nor her fellow black women seem able to find a black man to have a steady relationship with. And, in the camp, it is clear that some of the aborigines do not do their bit. While it is certainly not the first Australian novel to put the point of view of the aboriginal population, it was one of the finest up to that time and, as such, is well worth reading, though it is also well worth reading for a fine story, well told.

Publishing history

First published 1987 by University of Queensland Press