Review: Azaria: A True History

Maree Coote's picture books are sublime works of art; dramatic, visually arresting, evocative. Published by Melbourne Style Books, they are expressions of history, culture, art and design. Perfect conduits for conveying accounts and incidents in non-fictional settings in ways young children can enthuse over and understand.

When a tiny new born baby disappeared one fateful evening some 40 years ago, an entire nation was instantly polarised. Questions clotted in every lounge room, staff room and playground, quickly congealing into unsubstantiated opinions. Like many, I remember the exact moment I first heard the awful news report on the family television. It's a recollection indelibly inscribed on my memory. And yes, even in our humble household, assumptions were immediately made. You either believed a mother murdered her baby or a dingo committed a crime against nature.

Four decades on, several court hearings and a life time of attrition later, this simple picture book provides a clear, sensitive exploration of one of Australia's most infamous court cases and miscarriages of justice.
Coote's painfully beautiful illustrations dance between dark and light, illuminating the vast majesticness of the Australian Outback, its golds and ochres, blues and silvers all framed by an ocean of shimmering starlight that symbolically pays tribute to the Traditional Owners of the lands of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, the Anangu peoples.

The ubiquitous presence of the Australian Bogong moth provides a telling connectivity between Indigenous myth and reality, human civilisation and the wilderness and guides the reader from one scene to the other.

Lindy Chamberlain, Azaria's mother, and her family members are characterised in black and white cartoonesque fashion yet are remarkably recognisable probably thanks to the intense media coverage at the time subliminally branding their images into our psyches. Lindy's horror story began as family fun and adventure. Snap shot vignettes (a happy throwback to a time before smart phone photography) depict the scenery around the family's red centre camping ground, their various explorations, a meal of beans on toast and outlined in the delicate pinks and whites of her lacy matinee jacket, eight week old, Azaria. It's a scene out of any Aussie holiday adventure but most adventures, no one ever knows for sure how things will end. How true.

Words and pictures unite as Moote introduces young readers to the natural world and all its brutal reality in a series of life and death encounters; a gonna eats a moth for its supper, an eagle took a joey for its dinner... a dingo took a baby. There is nothing gruesome about these portrayals rather every stroke of colour describes the law of nature, of animals simply being who they are, ensuring the survival of their families. It is the way the world works. It is both marvellous and tragic.

The narration progresses with a blow by blow chronicle of the moments leading up to Azaria's abduction from the family tent, the futile search for her in the darkness and the subsequent crushing weight of hopelessness. Azaria's description becomes that of 'the baby' for heart wrenchingly, she is no more. She can't be found. Using the bland pro nouns of baby and mother force the reader to assume a more objective stance as prejudice and condemnation mount against Lindy Chamberlain ending in a life in prison conviction. Throughout it all, the mother maintained her innocence symbolically shown in this story as a broken red heart against her blackened chest.

Turmoil and depression ensue. The mother's world darkens into a gruesome fairy tale type tragedy through which floats the image of the baby, swaddled in pure white like a helpless little grub caught in the dark morose of misjudgment.

When it is finally revealed decades later that the mother was telling the truth all along, baby and dingo reunite in a strangely comforting juxtaposition of calm white light. Forgiveness.

Coote is extremely conscience of presenting every side of this story, careful to point out that animals behave as animals do, just as people do. Mob mentality, media misrepresentation and sometimes, people just getting things wrong can add up to monstrous miscalculations of judgment. They still do. Which is why this cautionary tale is a crucial reminder to us all to look beyond the surface and search for things that are not always as they seem. Just like the incredible monolith, Uluru. Just like the story of Azaria.

Even if you think you know the story of Azaria Chamberlain and even if you can't quite dislodge that first assumption, this is a achingly beautiful, thoughtfully rendered, significant work of art that is an excellent cross-curricular resource addressing an infinite number of nuances for discussion with children from as young as five. Highly recommended.

Title: Azaria: A True History
Author: Maree Coote
Illustrator: Maree Coote
Publisher: Melbourne Style Books, $29.95
Publication Date: March 2020
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780648568407
For ages: 8+
Type: Non Fiction Picture Book

Buy the Book: Melbourne Style Books, Walker Books Australia, Booktopia, Boomerang Books


Norah Colvin said…
I think this is a must have book for many Australians. It's a story that has become part of our consciousness. The illustrations look magnificent. I'm ordering my copy now. Thanks for the review.
DimbutNice said…
Oh, Norah I am so very pleased to hear that. This is a magnificent work of art to be sure. And yes, it presents an extremely, balanced, poignant and beautiful account of the entire saga. Enjoy. I'd be keen to know what you think. D

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