Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss

When we first meet Wagadhaany (pronounced wogga-dine), she is a young girl who is accompanying her father as he talks to the recently arrived white men who want to build a house near the river in the new town of Gundagai. Her father is trying to warn them that this is not the place to build because the river will flood but they do not want to listen to the indigenous people.

Fast forward several years and Wagadhaany and her father are both working for (or enslaved by) the white men, the Bradley family. She is working in the house, where they call her Wilma, and her father is a stockman. When tragedy strikes the town, many people are drowned when the river floods. Wagadhaany survives, thanks to her heroic father, and she hopes that with the death of Mr and Mrs Bradley and two of their sons, she will be allowed to return to live with her family, which is all she wants.

Unfortunately, the two remaining sons of the family have other ideas. After James Bradley marries a young Quaker widow, Louise, the young couple and his brother, David, decide to make a new start in another river town, Wagga Wagga. Whilst Louise likes to think that she is becoming Wagadhaany's friend, she still insists that she can't do without the young Wiradjuri woman and so she is torn even further away from her family and her land. 

This separation from all that she knows really affects Wagadhaany, and it is only when she meets the talented young stockman, Yindy, that she feels happiness, gradually being accepted into his family group. And yet, in this as in every regard of her life, she is at the whim of the Bradleys, having to ask for permission to be able to marry. Even then her own family and her own lands call her back. And the mighty river has yet more in store for her and her family.

I had previously read one of Anita Heiss' previous novels, Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, and thoroughly enjoyed it, but with this book she has gone to the next level. Not only is the title in the Wiradyuri language (it translates to River of Dreams), the text is full of the indigenous language of the nation that the author is a proud member of. That, in itself, is an interesting story as the language had practically died out until being reconstructed over the last 20 years or so and is now taught in the schools in the traditional lands. Heiss uses the language throughout, but it is easy to understand in context, and there is also an index in the book if it is required.

For all that this is a story from Wagadhaany's perspective, as the world around her rapidly changes due to colonisation, many of the personal themes that are explored are universal. The importance of family, culture, loss and identity are both personal and universal.

This book is based on the true story of the flooding of Gundagai in 1852. There is now a memorial in the town to the heroism of the Wiradyuri men who saved many people during these terrible events. I think we are heading up that way in the next few months, so I hope to visit the memorial on my way past. Part of that trip will also take us to Cowra, close to where Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms is set. 

I deliberately started reading this book whilst I was at Uluru a few weeks ago but, in the end, I didn't finish it until we were on the way home. This was for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we were busy and needed several afternoon naps after our activities which impeded on reading time. The other reason was because I felt a bit uncomfortable being in the red centre of Australia and reading about the flooding in a completely different area of the country. I think at least part of the reason is because I realised that to think that I am reading an indigenous story at a place like Uluru is all well and good, but the reality is that it is like saying I am visiting Madrid so I am going to read a book set in Paris which doesn't necessarily make sense as a deliberate decision.  There are completely different traditions, languages and cultures from the Ananju people who live in the region around Uluru and the Wiradyuri people who feature in this book. I am, however, glad that my trip prompted me to pick this book up earlier than I otherwise might have done.

In closing, I feel it is only right to acknowledge the Wadawurrung people whose land I live on.

I enjoyed this book and I hope that others will do to. Over the next couple of weeks I have some passages bookmarked to share which hopefully entice others to read it.

Rating 4.5/5

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the review copy

About the book


Gundagai, 1852
The powerful Murrumbidgee River surges through town leaving death and destruction in its wake. It is a stark reminder that while the river can give life, it can just as easily take it away.

Wagadhaany is one of the lucky ones. She survives. But is her life now better than the fate she escaped? Forced to move away from her miyagan, she walks through each day with no trace of dance in her step, her broken heart forever calling her back home to Gundagai.

When she meets Wiradyuri stockman Yindyamarra, Wagadhaany’s heart slowly begins to heal. But still, she dreams of a better life, away from the degradation of being owned. She longs to set out along the river of her ancestors, in search of lost family and country. Can she find the courage to defy the White man’s law? And if she does, will it bring hope ... or heartache?

Set on timeless Wiradyuri country, where the life-giving waters of the rivers can make or break dreams, and based on devastating true events, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (River of Dreams) is an epic story of love, loss and belonging.


  1. Your review makes this sound like a fascinating historical novel, including the point of view of the indigenous people and the author's knowledge of her own origins.

    best... mae at

  2. Great review. Sounds like a sad story but very engaging. I recently read The Exiles and found the treatment of the indigenous people appalling.

    1. It think it is fair to say that the experience of indigenous nations all around the world was appalling at the time of colonisation

  3. This book sounds super interesting. I'm going to have to see if I can find a copy here in the States. Glad you enjoyed it!

  4. ooh i really must read this one!!



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