Sue Lawson’s Freedom Ride is good. Really good. Many have called for it to be included on school reading lists and it will be added to ours if I have anything to do with it. It is a terrific portrayal of the Freedom Ride movement of the 1960s which evokes blood-boiling frustration at the injustice of the Apartheid-by-another-name experienced by Australia’s First People.
The hypocrisy is startling and everywhere: in the injustice of the descendants of invaders asserting territorial rights over the traditional owners; in the jibes about living conditions when the living conditions are proscribed; and, in the startling lack of insight into the their own lack of humanity.
The book also raises the prickly issue of hard-bitten pragmatism over ivory-tower elitism. ‘It is all well and good that these city-dwellers have developed a theory of equality but it won’t work in practice (especially if it rubs up against established self-serving power structures)’ the story goes. And the price of change is extracted from those willing to ruin (and even risk) their own lives in order to see it happen rather than those who have been profiting from the injustice all along.
This paints a strong picture of the in-group, out-group dynamic of the Australian bush in the sixties and can be extended to the state of publishing in Australia today – why is a book about the great Charlie Perkins and the people he sought to benefit told from the point of view of a young white boy and a white man who is supportive of the cause? Yes, the book has Micky but if you were ranking characters in order of importance, it would be generous to list him third. Sue Lawson cites Cloudstreet as one of her favourite books and for 25 years we have been discussing that book’s problematic representation on Indigenous Australians. Has she just created the same?
This does not make Freedom Ride any less of a book (actually, it probably does) but it does add an extra element to the importance of such a book. Students can learn from the historical events that occur in the novel, see the progress that has been made in Australia over the past 50 years and consider how far we have yet to come.