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Psalm 78
. . . we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done. .
so the next generation would know them . . . and they in turn would tell their children.
Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Journey to Elsey Station in 1903


Last week after The Little Black Princess by Mrs. Aeneas Gunn arrived in our mailbox, Edwards Academy kids and I became acquainted with Bett-Bett, an Aboriginal princess who lived near the Roper River of Australia’s Northern Territory in 1903. Bett-Bett was about eight or nine at the time that Mrs. Gunn (Jeannie) moved to the Elsey cattle station with her husband Aeneas. It was unheard of at the time for a gentlewoman and bride like Jeannie to settle in the wilds of Australia. The Gunn’s homestead was forty-five miles from the front gate of the property. And yet, Jeannie made the move and triumphed, winning over the skeptical stockmen of the station and coming to care deeply for the Aborigines who lived in the area. One of these was Bett-Bett.

Our kids loved hearing Mrs. Gunn’s tales of Bett-Bett and Goggle Eye, the old king. Bett-Bett and her little dog Sue were befriended by Mrs. Gunn, who took in Bett-Bett and gave her a chance to “sleep longa house” with “Missus.” Still, it was Bett-Bett who taught Mrs. Gunn much about the bush and the ways of her people. When the book first arrived and I read the prologue, which gives the context of the book, my children seemed distracted. But once I began reading about Bett-Bett, jumping in the river and hiding from the Willeroo people chasing her, leaving just her mouth and nose above water and risking the wrath of the crocodiles to stay hidden from her enemies, the kids were hooked.

Yesterday we finished the story of Bett-Bett so I borrowed We of the Never Never from the library. This is an Australian film based on Mrs. Gunn’s novel of the same name that tells of her thirteen months living on Elsey Station with her husband Aeneas. Although We of the Never Never focuses more on Mrs. Gunn’s challenge of making a home in a hostile place than the story of Bett-Bett, my kids were mesmerized by the film. They knew immediately when Bett-Bett and Goggle Eye where on the screen before the film even mentioned their names, recognizing them as old friends.

We of the Never Never is a touching story and film. (The novel, which I’ve not yet read, can be read free online through Project Gutenberg.) My daughters were very inspired by Jeannie’s strength of character. She never complained about the primitive homestead she found at Elsey, but determinedly set about making it into a home. Her attitude in the face of stockmen who did not want her there touched my daughters. When Jeannie meets the ranch cook, an angry man who will not let her cook for her husband, one of my daughters said, “But why don’t they like her? She just wants to cook and clean for her husband, and maybe ride horses once and a while?” According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Jeannie Gunn was the daughter of a Baptist minister and educated at home by her mother until she was seventeen. This little fact is not central to her story, but makes her that much more interesting for our home school.

Our week-long journey through the Northern Territory of Australia in 1903 would never have happened had it not been for Sharon’s post. Sharon of Equip Academy told about reading this book to her children, who are similar in age to mine, and I immediately decided to find the book, The Little Black Princess. It is out of print, but with some tips from Sharon I found it through Abe Books. Thank you so much for the tip, Sharon! It is thrilling to discover primary source books that children can enjoy.

We are spending the summer occasionally reading stories set in the turn of the (last) century, since our coming school year will kick off with this decade. The Little Black Princess was an unexpected treasure that fit in exactly with our summer emphasis. Coming up: Five Children and It (1902) by Edith Nesbit. Nesbit’s books were an inspiration to Edward Eager, the author of another Edwards Academy read-aloud, Half Magic. We know her already as the author of The Railway Children and look forward to reading about the wishes that five children make when they encounter a fairy in Five Children and It.

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