Review: The subjects of The Advocates are not at the forefront of their own story

  • The Advocates: Women within the Australian Environmental Movement, by Robyn Gulliver and Jill L. Ferguson. Melbourne University Press, $34.99.

There was an adage, "before reading the history, study the historian". A sensible admonition - we need to know where the historian is coming from, background, educational influences, beliefs, training, achievements.

In this worthy book, this is not the approach the authors take. Many of the women readers met in these pages are of passion, intelligence, determination and some achievement in a remarkably hostile environment. But, sadly, we don't come to know them as individuals.

Jill Redwood is attempting to save the great and ancient forests of East Gippsland. She is a formidable fighter, despite death threats and the shocking things done to her and her property. Readers would want to know why she fights on. Perhaps the cause is enough to explain it. But readers need guidance.

But how did Redwood come to this passion? She came to activism "early on", but how and why? Was it school, was it family, was it an experience that the young girl had? "She grew up in Melbourne," readers are told, "with a dream of being a hermit."

Where does such a dream come from? Again, was it school, was it family or something else? Dreaming of being a hermit is unusual. It cries out for explanation.

The discerning reader will soon discover that Robyn Gulliver did not meet personally with every one of the nine women she writes about. Jane Bremmer is an activist in Perth, horrified to discover the extent of the toxic waste allowed to co-exist in her relatively new suburb. The government will not remediate it, until activists, over many years, force their hand.

Gulliver writes: "Before we talked, I had looked up Jane online". Of course. But if readers are to understand the origins of her activism, the origins of her passion, the strength of her determination, Gulliver needs to do much more than that.

Can a writer really write with insight and understanding on the basis of an online profile?

It is the same with Jill Redwood. "I wanted to visit Jill" in her home, to see her forest. "But the horrors of 2020 stopped that ... the world moved online and so did my travels through Jill's world." The lack of personal contact accounts for the remote and somewhat impersonal sketches that make up this book.

These women deserved better. Each of them gives so much to causes that are important to us all. They approach their tasks with imagination and grit. They network, link up, spending untold time to make Australia better.

Their stories are inspiring. They needed to be better told.

This story Too much missing in a story founded on passion first appeared on The Canberra Times.