Is That You, Ruthie? by Ruth Hegarty
Review by Kylie Thompson
Rating: 4 Stars
When Ruthie’s pregnant mother travelled to the Cherbourg settlement to help her parents settle in, she’d expected to return to her fiancée, and start their family together. But once she entered the facility, she never saw him again. Once inside, without her consent, she and her unborn daughter became wards of the government.
It sounds like the start of a dystopian nightmare, not a memoir.
The settling of indigenous Australians in camps is a part of our history that’s difficult to think about. But for Ruth Hegarty, it was her childhood. Ruth was a dormitory girl, one of far too many denied a full education, and sent off to be maids and workers for white families.
Is That You, Ruthie? isn’t an easy read. It’s the sort of book I needed to put down for long stretches until the simmering anger subsided. The system played out in Ruth’s childhood was a particularly cruel one. There’s a sadism to the actions of the authorities that makes for an uncomfortable read. When Ruthie reached school age, for example, she found herself separated from her mother, unable to interact with her even when they were dining in the same room. It’s hard to think of people forcing mothers not to interact with their children; keeping them in arms reach without the chance of any real and meaningful contact.
It would be easier, perhaps, if Ruthie was a work of fiction.
There is a long and noble tradition of well educated, often white authors and memoirists, and oftentimes we’re spoiled by the poetic phrases and the learned craftsmanship of the work. We get too comfortable with a certain style of storytelling, and it can be hard to read work that doesn’t adhere to expectations. This isn’t a story polished to high shine so much as a story being hastily transcribed as it’s told around a coffee table. It feels a lot like clutching a cup of tea and listening to a beloved elder talking frankly about their life, complete with the futile urge to do something to change what you weren’t even alive for.
Is That You, Ruthie? is unemotional in the way the older generations tend to be when discussing what’s truly painful. It can be frustrating at first, but as the story progresses, that matter of fact tone keeps it from being an impossible read. What happened to Ruthie, and to so many families like hers, is an enormous blight on the nation’s history, and one we often shy away from, even as its reverberations are still deeply felt.
A wise man once said that we study history to learn from our mistakes; to grow and become better human beings. When the mistakes of the past are thousands of years old, it’s a far easier task to make peace with them. It takes courage to stand up and speak your truth when your childhood was spent being taught to fear those in power, and Ruth Hegarty does so with grace and compassion.
For anyone who has ever wondered about the reality of the Stolen Generation, or even anyone who wants a reason to hug their kids a little bit tighter, I’d recommend this book. Then again, I’d recommend it to everyone. Ruthie’s world is one of painful truths, certainly, but it’s also an important part of our history.
Is That You, Ruthie? is available through iTunes and Amazon, and at author events.