Finding ElizaEliza Fraser’s story is one hell of a tale.  No doubt you’ve heard it before: young woman shipwrecked off the Queensland coast in the 1836, long days at sea in an open boat, cast ashore on a large island inhabited by Aboriginal savages, husband killed and Eliza rescued from ‘a fate worse than death’ just in the nick of time.

Perhaps you came across Eliza’s story in Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves.  Maybe you’ve seen Tim Burstall’s 1976 film Eliza Fraser (with Noel Ferrier as the husband and Abigail as Buxom Girl). I think there’s a pretty shoddy biography of Eliza Fraser on my own bookshelf somewhere.

But as Larissa Behrendt points out in her interesting new book Finding Eliza, all the various versions of Eliza’s story – including Eliza’s own, ever-changing version – add up to little more than a flawed reflection and reinforcement of white colonial values.

Those narratives also allowed writers to transfer the violence of their own culture onto that of the Aborigines. They contain accounts of the brutish way of life of Aboriginal people but are curiously devoid of accounts of brutality within penal colonies or of violence against Aboriginal people.  Eliza Fraser’s story says: ‘they’ are barbarians, not ‘us’.

Behrendt tries to see the story from the point of view of the Aborigines, the Butchulla people who in fact took Eliza in and saved her life.  She goes on to examine how many other stories told by white people about blacks serve to reinforce notions of white superiority: De Foe’s Robinson Crusoe; Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo; Elizabeth Durack’s ‘Eddie Burrup’ fiction; various false claims of cannibalism.

Behrendt recognises that Eliza Fraser’s story was ripe for the picking: by Eliza herself in an effort to make money; and by others in efforts to push their own values and agendas.

Much of the way Eliza’s story was told by others paid little heed to the complex woman she was.  Instead, she became a symbol of the ambitions and worldviews of others. … Eliza’s story – and captivity narratives in general – served useful political and nationalistic purposes.  They unified colonists in what they saw as the rightness of the way they behaved towards Indigenous people.  In this way Eliza’s story came to symbolise worldviews that would in time shape future relationships with the land and the Aboriginal people.  These worldviews were transferred to laws and policies that demanded the land and the savage tribes that inhabited it be tamed.  The ‘natives’ had to be civilised and Christianised, Aboriginal people had to be assimilated (forcibly if need be) to ensure they had the benefits of ‘civilisation’ – and all this with the underlying assumption of white racial superiority.  Aboriginal society had nothing to offer and nothing of value that was worth saving or protecting.

Finding Eliza is not without flaws of its own.  Behrendt’s scope is so wide that the narrative sometimes feels disjointed, skipping from theme to theme as if ticking topics off a list.  Subheadings have replaced the prose that could have led the reader more smoothly from one idea to the next.   However the text is also peppered with useful and enlightening illustrations and photos – just black and white reproductions, to be sure, but surely something that could be included far more often in this age of digital publishing.  And Behrendt’s prose is always readable and sharp, never getting bogged by complexity at the expense of clarity.

As you might expect of a Professor of Indigenous Research and an award-winning novelist, Behrendt’s examination of the issues is nuanced and insightful.  Her depiction and analysis of artist Elizabeth Durack’s construction of an Aboriginal alter-ego (or nom de brush) called Eddie Burrup is far better, for example, than the cursory overview provided by Brenda Niall in her recent biography True North, of sisters Elizabeth and Mary Durack.  Eliza Fraser’s story provides an ongoing narrative thread but Finding Eliza is really about the power of storytelling, about who gets to tell the stories, and about how some stories say more about the storytellers than they do about the ostensible subjects.