John Marsden’s award winning picture book, is a partly figurative story about colonisation, told from the viewpoint of the colonised. Marsden deeply explores the concept of belonging through powerful illustrations and key phrases. I believe Marsden’s purpose of this pictorial children’s book is to convey at a children’s level the unfair and disturbing history of the colonization of Australia. The misunderstanding and disrespect of cultures, destruction, conformity, clashing beliefs, misuse of power and loss of identity are all brought to the surface throughout the story and closely tie in with the belonging theme.
Shaun Tan has effectively used animals (rabbits and possums) to represent the whites and the indigenous Australian’s. Tan has carefully selected these animals in contrast with each other, rabbits being known to multiply prolifically and were an introduced ‘pest’ in Australia because of their destructive nature, making burrows, eating vegetation and in so doing, making the land useless. Possums, on the other hand are native to the land, living in tree tops and in the wild, being nocturnal and completely harmless to nature.
The illustrations are heavily symbolised and thoroughly thought through by Shaun Tan. The arrowed, expanding flags looking similar in shape to the ‘British Union Jack’. The introduced farm animals are illustrated in a way, hooked up to milking machines and have drawn outlines on them of the favoured “butchers cuts”. Obviously the Indigenous Australian’s have a more harmonious relationship with the land and the native animals. The illustrations clearly reveal that there is little harmony, if any, in taking into consideration the traditional residents of the land.
Whereas the Aboriginal’s are traditionally nomadic in culture where they don’t over resource or outstrip the land. On the other hand, the whites like to fence off the land, building permanent homes, resulting in over using and rendering the land till it’s useless. Marsden and Tan touch also on the ugly but truthful history of the ‘stolen generation’. The illustration where the baby possums are being taken away in box kites is also highly figurative.
From the 1950’s through to the 1970’s the ‘white Australia policy’ was under the presumption that integration was the best solution, taking the children away was therefore justified. The illustration of the baby possums being stolen away in the box kites is suggestive of the way white people like to categorise and organise even people. People, that do not fit in boxes or belong in a specific category. In fact Aboriginal’s were not even counted in the Australian census, and in 1967 they came under the flora and fauna act
Destruction and loss of belonging are displayed on the page beginning with the sentence “they didn’t live in trees like we did”, is a framed portrait of the white settlers perception which is observed unmistakably in first glimpse, the picture of the striking sunset, buildings and houses collectedly assembled next to one another. The Aboriginals viewpoint, being the truth is shown on the exterior, surrounding the framed painting. It is visible that the Europeans are capturing the owned, Aboriginal land. The sentence “they didn’t live in trees like we did” suggests confusion and disorientation.
The Aboriginals don’t understand the approaching ‘intruders’. “They made their own houses. We couldn’t understand the way they talked”. This sentence further entails their bewilderment towards the European’s purpose and aim. Where the Aboriginals are sitting in the tree, the sky is much lighter compared to where the Europeans are placed, suggesting that the Aboriginals were familiar to the lighter coloured sky before the invasion, which is symbolised through the darker coloured sky, implying the dark sky is the time of destruction for them.
There is a rat consuming a lizard in the corner of the page. This image again is also symbolic of the depressing issue of the whites controlling the Aboriginals after declaring the Australian land as their own. The white pavement is purposely added into the image to show all Australian’s as being white now. The modest red flags on the land in the background, have a display of arrows on them pointing off into all different directions, subtlety suggesting expansion and deeply accentuating the European settlement to a much higher extent.