‘Grounded in Truth’: Young Dark Emu

It was Reconciliation Week last week in Australia and this year’s theme was ‘grounded in truth’. It highlighted Aboriginal and Torres Train Islander peoples’ call for a process of truth-telling about Australia’s colonial history as a way of healing historical wounds. Because let’s face it, someone has to – there’s a leadership void where the political classes are concerned (apart from in Victoria, of course).

While this country remains in deep denial about the trauma white settlers visited on this continent (just change Australia Day goddammit!!), I figure one small, small way that I can contribute to reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Indigenous Australians is to educate myself better about the wrongs of the past and to understand their impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I shake my head whenever I reflect that I never learned anything about this trauma during my decades of formal Australian education.

Young Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe is the perfect entry point for this. By reexamining journals and drawings from early Australian settlers and explorers, Bruce Pascoe paints a radically different picture of Aboriginal people and their culture.

At the heart of this book is a challenge – reconsider what you’ve been taught about the colonisation of Australia. It is not as the white history books tell it.

Author Bruce Pascoe
Author Bruce Pascoe

Through first-hand white settler accounts, Pascoe shows us that Aboriginal people had sophisticated means of managing the land to minimise erosion, bush fires and excessive cultivation. There’s evidence of an Aboriginal woman baking bread 50,000 years before the Egyptians next did it. There were permanent houses, man-made wells, planted fields of yam – in other words, organised settlements surrounded by managed farmland. All evidence points to Aboriginal people having sustained themselves on the land in complex ways for 60,000 years before settlement. Most importantly, it destroys the assumption that Australia was terra nullius (land belonging to no one), the notion upon which Australia’s entire legal and cultural structures are based.

The beautiful thing about this book is that it is powerful and persuasive without being didactic. It mentions the battles, the massacres, the disease and starvation. But that is only part of the narrative. What comes through strongly and proudly is that Australia is home to one of the richest and oldest continuing cultures in the world.

Young Dark Emu is a junior version of Pascoe’s Dark Emu, which has collected a litany of awards and accolades. It’s perfectly pitched to a younger audience, balancing authentic story telling with age-appropriate concepts and language, whilst never becoming patronising. Moreover, its a gorgeous book; the illustrations and the graphic design make it a delight to hold and to read.

What shines through these pages strongest of all is hope; hope for a more equitable and accurate understanding of our heritage. As Pascoe has said about the success of Dark Emu: “It just goes to show that Australia is changing its mind about its own history — there’s a conversation going on, and ­people are using the book to open that conversation.”

Let the conversation be a long and honest one, grounded in truth.


I received Young Dark Emu from the fabulous Magabala Books in exchange for an honest review.


This is a site about books and about tea, and how we should read more books and drink more tea. Sometimes, it's hard to know what books to read and what tea to drink. This is where I can help out.


  1. So sorry I’m only commenting on this now. I’m just cleaning up my blog inbox and am finding such a backlog of posts to read and comment on. I won’t get to them all but I had to come and say thanks for writing this one. I’m guessing it’s probably not worth reading if I’ve read Dark emu? Or, is it?

    BTW Have you read or heard Stan Grant on changing the date? He has a slightly different perspective.

    • I know where you’re at with comments! I would say stick with Dark Emu, although worth flicking through the junior version for the beautiful pictures. I haven’t heard Stan Grant’s position; I’ll seek it out. Thanks!

  2. I’ve got Dark Emu on my wishlist and reading your review of the young people’s version makes me want to read it even more. Once I push a few more off my 145-strong pile of books to read!

    My awareness of Australia as a kid was cartoon-like: cricket, convicts and cheekiness. The only Australian ‘history’ I learnt at school was in Geography, when we learnt about the import of merino sheep and their importance in establishing Australia’s livestock farming. I’ve been trying to improve my knowledge, but I still had no idea about the agrarian sophistication of Aboriginal society.

    • Hey Jan. To be honest, it doesn’t sound like your education was any less reductive than mine (other than we got to go on some excursions to historical places of interest in Sydney). I’m only now, as are many Australians, gaining better knowledge about what Indigenous culture can teach us. It’s a nascent field, but an exciting and interesting one (particularly in relation to climate change). And if it helps, the junior version will take you about 20 minutes to read; it’s terrific for an overview. While you track that down, Bruce Pascoe has a 10 minute TED talk that gives some an excellent overview and insights.

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