Books & Literature

Book Review: The Boy from Birdum: The Bill Dempsey Story, by Bill Dempsey with Steve Hawke

MEMOIR: Bill Dempsey has been a champion footballer, premiership captain, and member of the AFL’s Indigenous Team of the Century. This is his story.

A warm and fascinating memoir of the humble footy legend, Bill Dempsey.

Imagine you’re at a pub in the Australian outback. An older gentleman saunters over to the stool next to you and a few beers later, you know all about his life. His rough-and-tumble childhood, his football (footy) days with multiple premierships, and where you can find him tomorrow—just down the road, he’s staying with family for a week. You’ve only just met the man, but you feel like you’ve known him your whole life.

That’s what it feels like to read The Boy from Birdum: The Bill Dempsey Story

Growing up in the Retta Dixon Home, a missionary school for Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory (NT), and separated from his mother, Bill Dempsey’s childhood was never going to be easy. It was there, though, that he set the foundations of self-motivation and hard work which were instilled in him for the rest of his life. 

Bill Dempsey is a humble and modest man. Having played an estimated 400+ games between his time at West Perth in the Western Australia National Football League (WANFL) and his beloved Buffaloes in the Northern Territory Football League (NTFL), it is clear he is a very skilled footballer. And yet with the book written in his voice, his achievements are downplayed to be just another thing that he did that year. He would never willingly tell you he is a two-time premiership player, Simpson Medal winner (best on ground in a WA Grand Final), Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, NT and WA Hall of Fame Inductee, and player in the Indigenous Team of the Century. Somehow, as he says these achievements, the reader doesn’t realise just how talented a footballer Bill Dempsey is.

To put Dempsey’s greatness into perspective, Steve Hawke, co-author of The Boy from Birdum, inserts a chapter of Bill’s fellow players and commentators reflecting on his footy days. Without this section, one might misunderstand the star quality Bill possessed on the field with his massive leaps and outstanding marks. His talents are even illustrated within the photograph sections of the books, where readers get a glimpse of Dempsey’s strong, outstretched arms high above his opponents. The photographs also help put a face to all the names he mentions, which are quite a few. 

For a man so talented on the field, one would think footy was his entire life. It’s quite comical to learn that as a young kid, Bill preferred basketball to football. But his true passion in life lies in helping his friends, family, and the Aboriginal community. “Making my way in the wider world,” Bill recounts, “and looking after those near and dear to me are what counted.” Dempsey has done just that as a leader in the Aboriginal community both on and off the field. 

Bill Dempsey is not a literary novelist, but boy, is he a storyteller. He draws you in with his short stories. Each one is painted with emotions and feelings from that time, but not necessarily the hard facts of what was said or done. Much like the guy at that imaginary pub, you quickly get a sense of who Bill really is with his Australian slang (blue, tucker, feller, etc.) and the conversational ease with which he spins yarns.

Readers with an interest in modern-day Australian Rules Football (AFL) will enjoy reading The Boy from Birdum as it shows how much has changed over the years. It is interesting to hear about the evolution of the ruck position from a former player with a completely different role and style of playing from current ruckmen. The Boy from Birdum is reminiscent of the Amazon Prime AFL documentary series, Making Their Mark, giving onlookers an insight into the thinking of a professional footy player.    

And now the handball is to you. Grab Bill Dempsey’s book and enjoy. 

Reviewed by Alessa Young

Distributed by: Magabala Books
Released: 1 April 2021
RRP: $29.99

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