The Lives of Stories


…by Francesca Beddie

Gleebooks sold all their copies of Emma Dortins’ book, The Lives of Stories, three Aboriginal-settler friendships at the launch on 4 April. Sales were going well even before Mark McKenna’s introduction to the work and the conversation between him and Emma. Both these rightly stimulated further demand. I bought the last copy.

McKenna, Dortins’ PhD supervisor, told us the book was bristling with energy and insight, and written by someone with a nature gift for storytelling. An apt aptitude as Dortins’ interest is all about stories: how they come about, how they are transmitted and changed, and their potential to be transformative.

She has taken three stories, the life and adventures of James Morrill, shipwrecked in 1846 near what is today Townsville; the many truths of Bennelong’s tragedy; and the friendship between Wiradjuri leader Windradyne and the Suttor family in Bathurst. McKenna explained that Dortins’ has drawn on film, theatre and novels, as well as historical method, to show how these stories have evolved. They belong to a broader stream than just history.

Indeed, in traversing the interpretations of the Morrill story, with the protagonist no longer representing the beginning of colonial history in northern Queensland but also a part of Aboriginal history, Dortins concludes that academic disciplines such as archaeology, geography and history tend to reproduce a segregate landscape. To produce a more rounded picture, it is necessary to go beyond the documentary history tradition, delving into the imagination and drawing on family stories even if these are not recorded in the evidence.

To get the book written Dortins lived a bifurcated life, working at day, writing at night – and, by the way, becoming a mother during the process. That process showed her that she was not just an observer but a participant, who was choosing to retell these stories now and to release them into the contemporary environment in order to keep them alive and give them new meanings. For that reason, Dortins talks about the process of her research, showing how that too has been part of the shifting lives of her chosen stories.

Telling Bennelong’s was perhaps the most challenging, for his ‘tragic’ story has had so many airings. She concludes in the pithy coda she adds to each story – and the one McKenna read out at the launch:

Tragedy is not life, nor is it history. Tragedy is a dramatic or literary construction with its own logic and genealogy. If Bennelong’s life is ’tragic’, then it is his storytellers who have made it so.

Moreover, she suggests, if we listen to Aboriginal stories of their past, we may come to see things differently, to put stories in new contexts and use them for different purposes. For one Aboriginal woman quoted in the book, Bennelong is an ancestor who provides an example to others on how to connect two cultures.

This book emerged from a scholarly endeavour but is infused by Dortins’ experience as a public historian. She has engaged with the academic literature but also with local history groups and, through her own professional life, with the policy and practice of heritage. From this combined experience emerges an important consideration of how history is made and the role it plays in the nation. Dortins does not want to burden these three stories of Aboriginal-settler friendships with too much responsibility but does demonstrate how they contribute to the reconciliation movement. Her book also shows that history cannot be made just once; it must be retained and repeated and reassessed.

Dortins’ book is available at:

BY phanswblogeditor IN Uncategorized ON 8 APRIL 2019

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  1. Anne smith says:

    Congratulations Emma!

  2. Patricia Curthoys says:

    A terrific account of a book launch full of warmth and generosity by all involved. Thankyou Francesca. And congratulations again Emma. Am very much looking forward to reading the book when my ordered copy arrives!

  3. Nice post Francesca and a wonderful book too.

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