Title: Daughter of the River Country
Author: Dianne O’Brien with Sue Williams
Publisher: Echo Publishing
Trigger warning: contains mention of sexual and physical abuse.
Daughter of the River Country traces O’Brien’s life. It begins with her childhood memories of her adoptive Irish mother Val, who O’Brien believed was her birth mother. When Val dies suddenly, O’Brien is abandoned by her adoptive father and a series of heart-wrenching events are triggered. Though O’Brien always knew she was different to other children, she believed her darker skin was due to Italian, Irish, or African-American ancestry. It is only when she is 36 with six children of her own that O’Brien finds out she is Aboriginal. O’Brien is a victim of the Stolen Generations and was removed from her mother at birth.
Dianne O’Brien is now the Chairperson of Mingaletta Corporation, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community hub. Throughout her career she has held several senior positions in government; inspired many through her work as a drug and alcohol counsellor; and was elected “NSW grandparent of the year” in 2017. Daughter of the River Country details how O’Brien was able to achieve such accomplishments despite a traumatic childhood.
Condensing a lifetime as tumultuous and eventful as O’Brien’s into a novel is no small feat. After brief reflection on some rosy memories of childhood, this memoir quickly reaches full steam before hurtling to a finish. Its intensity is amplified by the fact that these are real events. As a result, the story-telling style is concise and does not linger too much on unimportant details. O’Brien does explore her feelings, but not in great depth, and I sometimes found her pragmatism in the face of unfortunate circumstances to be quite jarring. For example, she recounts being hit by her partner: “And he turned and whacked me across the face. The doctors called the police…Domestic violence, back then, was just an accepted part of a woman’s lot.” Upon reflection, I suppose this speaks to O’Brien’s innate strength – in these instances there was not time for her to explore her hurt and anger, she needed to be strong to protect her children.
Though it can be difficult to read the abuse and violence described in this memoir, the reader is never left to dwell on it for too long. Partly because of the pragmatic tone of O’Brien’s voice and because she overcomes every difficulty sent her way. She takes every vice or act of cruelty against her and turns it into a positive for others, for example taking her own experience of abusing alcohol and later becoming a drug and alcohol counsellor.
I was incredibly inspired by the continual strength and love for others expressed by O’Brien, even at the lowest points of her life. O’Brien gains her strength from family. Whether it is her adoptive mother, her children, or her biological sisters – her love for them is immensely clear. It was this love that propelled me through the reading.
For readers that enjoy memoirs, learning about Aboriginal history, or first-person accounts involving overcoming adversity, Daughter of the River Country is the perfect book for you. The story-telling style makes it quick to read and the inspiring content makes every minute worth it. As the book’s subtitle says, it is truly a “memoir of hope and survival”.