"They went to the campfire where the cinders were cold. Liyan took a stick that had burnt black almost to charcoal. She ground the soot and the charred ends of the stick into a powder in the palm of her hand, and began to rub it into John Jagamarra's skin."
The Burnt Stick is an important and confronting story which should be shared with our older Primary students especially as we mark the occasion of Sorry Day. You can learn a little more about this important day here. The Burnt stick was published in 1994 long before our national discussions about the Stolen Generation but it is one of the best books to use with students as a way to explain this complex and tragic aspect of our history.
Liyan's plan as outlined in the quote above works twice. The Big Man from the Welfare arrives to take John away because his skin is light-brown which is a sign of his mixed parentage. The first time he simply gets back into his truck and drives away. The second time he pats John on the head and finds his hand covered with dust. (see the illustration by Mark Sofilas below) Liyan laughs this off 'It's ashes from the fire, boss. He was playing in them this morning. You know what black fellers are like. We always bin sitting in the dust." Sadly the trick is revealed and so on their third visit in the early morning John is taken away.
The scenes of John's capture come as a flashback. The Burnt Stick opens with a description of life at the Pearl Bay Mission for Aboriginal Children. I think this section would make a good starting point for a discussion with students :
"For the Fathers did not teach the children the songs, the dancing and the picture-making of their own people. They did not ... tell them stories of the Dreaming and the Ancestor spirits of the land that had once been told around the campfires. They did not show them how to follow the kangaroo through the bush, or how to make spears, or how to find where the wild yams grew (and) ... as the years went by, most people forgot them."
You might like to explore this detailed unit of work for The Burnt Stick. We also have an audio version in our school library and I found an excellent interview with the author Anthony Hill which will greatly add to your understanding and appreciation of this book. Here is another detailed review with some useful links.
The Horn Book in 1995 said :
"An exceptional and very emotional novel that will stay with readers long after they have finished it."