And when I opened the rough draft file of Gifts of the Peramangk that Dean emailed to me, I found it dealing even more deeply with Australia: namely, some of the darker moments in its history, and in its present too.
It was unfinished, yes, and being a rough draft it had some typos and inconsistencies ("Wait, Dean, is she his mother or his mother-in-law?"). But I could see right away that at its heart was what makes for a powerful novel: the courage to take on difficult (even horrifying) social issues, and the sympathy to show those issues through the eyes of vulnerable characters that we immediately resonate with.
Even the rough draft put tears in my eyes, and now that the book is all polished up and properly published, I still feel those emotions when I leaf through its pretty pages.
Below is my official review, and do go check out Dean's work!
GIFTS OF THE PERAMANGK
by Dean Mayes
This novel moved me to tears more than once, and made me want to cheer by the end. Dean Mayes illustrates the heart-stopping cruelty of racism, and turns it into an inspiring story of humans going out of their way to care for each other. Music is a character of its own in this story: it crosses all boundaries and heals several wounds (if not quite all).
Virginia, one of the "stolen children" of the Aboriginal Australians in the mid 20th century, was the most heartbreaking character. It's shocking to know this kind of thing actually happened, ripping apart families and resulting in horrible abuse. But even she finds a source of kindness and hope, in the form of a good-hearted woman who teaches her to play violin.
Fast forward half a century, and we find that Ruby, Virginia's modern-day granddaughter, has inherited the same prodigious talent, which might pull her up from the poverty and violence that besiege her own family life. All the characters end up displaying moments of startling bravery that give me goosebumps just thinking about them. These moments take place in settings as different as held-up convenience stores and concert halls--you never know when a person might decide to step up and change his or her life.
It's the kind of book that makes you want to become a better human. I hope they have high school students read it in social studies or history in future. The lesson would actually stick with them for once.
Oh, and for fans of The Hambledown Dream, there is a very cool tie-in, later in the book, in which we get to revisit a few of those wonderful characters too. But Peramangk still makes perfect sense even if you haven't read Hambledown. (Though you should!)