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Defining the National Character
on 24 October 2003
Far too many history books are deadly dry, a compilation of facts and dates that often leave out the human element and with little sense of drama. This book does not fall into that trap, being something of a mix of memoir, short vignettes of many, many people, both famous and ordinary, and the more normal recounting of the happenings of history. Often the people stories are insightful, sometimes humorous, and do much to help illustrate Knightley's main thesis of just what an Australian really is.
The downside of this method of narration is that it is easy to lose objectivity, something I'm afraid Knightley is guilty of in at least a few places. His political bias is very much in evidence throughout this book, most glaringly in his depiction of the various Prime Ministers and the battles between the working man and the rich landholders/business executives. At the same time, his depiction of the items that have gone into the making of the essential Australian character is well told, forming a mosaic of events and people that put this character into clear focus. Having lived in Australia myself (a very long time ago, but I don't think there has been any basic change in this item since), I can testify that the traits of wishing everyone to 'have a fair go' and mateship really do seem to be defining items of that character.
One item that would definitely have improved this book would have been the inclusion of some maps of the country. Unless one is intimately aware of the geography of this continent-country, the references to literally hundreds of place names and towns can be daunting without some way to place them spatially. I would have also liked to see a little greater treatment of the early period of its settlement, as the emphasis of this book is very much the twentieth century, and even more so on the last half of that century. Often the narration is told from the strictly political point of view, with little reference to the great resource finds and their development that had quite an influence on how Australia developed.
On the other hand, Knightley does a very good job of portraying and documenting the treatment that the Aborigines have been subjected to, from the earliest settlements to the latest landmark court decisions dealing with their land rights. More than any other item, this one area shows just how much Australia has changed from a blatantly racist and xenophobic nation to one that has at least begun to recognize its past failings and find its place in a truly multi-cultural world.