Free Diving

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Lorrae Coffin (text), Bronwyn Houston (illus.), Free Diving, Magabala Books, Sept 2017, 32pp., $17.99 (pbk), ISBN: 9781925360738 

It’s one of those little-known facts of Australian history. The practice, known as ‘blackbirding’, involved the forced unpaid labour of Indigenous people in the pearling industry in Western Australia during the mid-1800s.

This lyrical, heart-rending tale is from a song, written by Lorrae Coffin to remember those men and women who worked as ‘free divers’, diving for pearl shell for European lugger owners. With no protective suits, the divers faced threats such as decompression sickness, shark attack, and being swept away by tides.

This is the story of one man, taken from his home and family, who is eventually lost at sea.

The gentle, poignant text and illustrations, rich with colour and emotion, convey the heartache of leaving home, the compassion and kindness of the ‘colourful crew’, and the simultaneous fear and freedom to be found at the bottom of the ocean.

Magabala Books is behind a strong collection of beautifully created books celebrating Indigenous voices. This book is no exception. It’s more suited to older readers, providing an ideal opportunity for classroom discussions about social injustices throughout history.

Reviewed by Penny Harrison

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