Camping provides a wonderful chance to get away from the distractions of daily life (TV, computer, smart phone – you name it). For me, a city dweller, it also provides a chance to move away from our built environment and be grounded by the earth, sea and land. In fact, during Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey series, she interviewed an Indigenous Australian who said the simplest thing anyone in Australia can do to re-connect with the land is to take off your shoes and walk on the grass, even in the city or your local park, as a reminder of the environment and the Indigenous Australians who are the custodians of the land. So after a long walk in Wilson’s Prom I took off my shoes, felt the earth and started to read Patti Miller’s “The Mind of a Thief”.

Patti Miller found herself inextricably connected to issues of land and land rights almost by coincidence. During a visit to her home town of Wellington, Miller met with a group of Wiradjuri women elders. Over the course of conversation, the women’s questions led to Miller’s own heritage and ancestry leading to the very real possibility that Miller herself might have Aboriginal heritage. Finding herself increasingly drawn to the story of the women elders, of the Wiradjuri people and a side of Wellington she hardly knew growing up, Miller becomes deeply immersed in this very personal quest to know more about her town and recent native title claim on the land. ¬†Image

The Mind of a Thief is wonderfully written. One cannot fault Miller’s gift as a writer who weaves words and evokes images of the land and the many people who tell her its stories. Yet I felt less comfortable with Miller’s role as interpreter of stories and quasi-historian. She concedes early on that she is not a historian and has conducted wide research to fill this gap in her knowledge. There is genuine surprise for Miller as she uncovers stories about the Aboriginal side of Wellington she hardly knew – from camps, to racism and displacement. Her honesty in revealing this helps all of us to understand how the roles played by Indigenous Australians have been¬†deeply hidden from our history.

As Miller becomes personally involved with some of the main protagonists in competing Native Title claims in Wellington I felt troubled by the lack of angst she expresses with her own position. This might just be the undergraduate history student in me but I find that Miller walks a fine line between her own memoir and a non-fiction story of rights to land, native title and registration claims. We never really know if she ever felt uncomfortable in her position as an author/insider who at times is judging the merits of the claims and counter-claims of local Wiradjuri people. Her constant need to remind us of her own hardship growing up in Wellington (often repeated mentions of no running water, no hot tap) sounds like the author is trying to place herself in a position as an equally hard-done by resident of Wellington alongside Indigenous Australians. It might not be her intention but this sentiment does come across.

Little observations about an interviewee eating all the cake, Miller’s disappointment at not being called when the native title claim is finally and resolved and other assumptions throughout the book, started to irk me as a reader as if Miller was sitting in judgement of the case as she befriended locals both indigenous and non-indigenous alike. What would have been more interesting for me would have been more emphasis on Miller’s own responses to learning about how the Wiradjuri people were treated in her midst, while she was growing up, in the same town. Finally, as someone who respects requests by Indigenous elders not to climb Uluru, I baulked at Miller’s audacity in trying to locate and visit sacred Wiradjuri grounds.

The parallel story of Miller visiting her mother throughout research for the book makes for a nice story-being told-within a story sub-plot and the unveiling of the mystery of Wellington to her mother could have been just the place for some more self-reflection.

Patti’s Miller “The Mind of a Thief” has received wide acclaim and is included in the first-ever Stella Prize Long List. I eagerly await the short-list announcement on 20th March and hope that the judges are perhaps not as nit-picky as I have been – instead seeing this well-written tale uncovering a hidden story as another contribution to the larger story of Indigenous Australia and its multiple histories.