Books & Literature

Book Review: Kunyi, by Kunyi June Anne McInerney

PICTURE BOOK: A collection of tender and honest stories that will educate children on our nation’s history and remind adult readers of the real impact of the Stolen Generations.

Captivating illustrations and personal stories reveal the realities of life at Oodnadatta Children’s Home during the 1950s.

Kunyi is a window to the world of those members of the Stolen Generations who were separated from their families to live at Oodnadatta Children’s Home.

Kunyi June Anne McInerney was born in 1950 on Todmorden Station in South Australia and was four years old when she and three of her siblings were taken to live on the nearby mission. In creating Kunyi, she wanted people to know what really happened to the children from the desert area and to help people gain an understanding of the impact of being taken away from your loved ones and culture.

In a matter-of-fact style, McInerney immerses the reader in the routines of the children’s home, showing the stark differences between everyday life in the new, highly structured environment alongside the freedom, family connections, and community the young children were used to.

The text is divided into short sections to focus on different aspects of the day, including meal times and hygiene tasks, nights in the dormitory, kitchen work, and lessons. There’s plenty of play, too. The children seek fun and adventure whenever they get the chance—tales of bush tucker expeditions, collecting wild peaches, and climbing high in the gum trees to hunt for honey grubs bring moments of joy.

The regimented approach to life is evident in the depiction of children lining up repeatedly: to eat, to sit for story time, and covering faces with their hands as they endure kerosene treatment for head lice. Individual care is non-existent. Each child is given the same haircut and there is no special treatment. From time to time, though, there are moments of reconnection with what’s been left behind. There’s the warmth of a hug when Granny Tjandi comes for Sunday church service, and the satisfaction of being allowed to sing in Yankunytjatjara language in the presence of family visitors. The contrasts are painful.

McInerney began painting and drawing as a child when, after nap time on Sunday afternoons, she used watercolour, pencils, and plasticine to depict scenes from Bible stories. In addition to Kunyi, McInerney has illustrated several other children’s books including Daisy Bates and the Watjala KidsTracker Tjugingji and Bush Games and Knucklebones.

The paintings in Kunyi were originally featured in the exhibition ‘My Paintings Speak for Me’ at Adelaide’s Migration Museum and a selection of the works has toured South Australia. The latest show will open at Barossa Regional Gallery in Tanunda on Sunday 20 June 2021. 

Double-page spreads in Kunyi feature large, whole-page images as well as smaller ones alongside the text. In artwork that is vivid and arresting, McInerney captures the vibrancy of the landscape as well as the rough living conditions. Corrugated iron, a popular building material, is a common motif. It forms the roof and walls of the mission house—the children’s accommodation is devoid of insulation and the dining area is exposed to the elements.

There is intense colour from cover to cover, from patterned fabric squares and clothes sent by Adelaide church groups, to the clay pans, sand hills, plants, and creatures of the arid landscape surrounding the children’s home, with the red desert earth running throughout.

This 60-page hardback junior non-fiction book will appeal to adults as well as older children. It’s best suited to readers aged 9+ years due to the significant amount of text and the frank descriptions of the strict and challenging conditions imposed by the missionaries at the home.

Reconciliation Week invites us to seek opportunities to ensure stories like Kunyi June Anne McInerney’s are not forgotten. The impact of the Stolen Generations is still being experienced today, and by opening ourselves to true stories of loss, separation, resilience, and spirit we can deepen our insight and move towards action. 

Kunyi is an honest and engrossing glimpse of young lives lived between two cultures and is essential reading.

Reviewed by Jo Vabolis
Twitter: @JoVabolis

Distributed by: Magabala Books
Released: 1 June 2021
RRP: $27.99

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