Laine Cunningham

In The Family Made of Dust, your main characters are adult Australian Aborigines who were caught up in the government’s assimilation policy. They were removed from their families at an early age and sent to missions and adoption agencies. Why is this book important now?
Hundreds of thousands of people in Australia today are living with this deep sorrow. They lost their parents and siblings, and still don’t know who their families are. Sometimes they can trace the paperwork back to a specific area or tribe but they’ve still lost those ties to their culture. Our government did the same thing to Native Americans when they shipped the children off to schools hundreds or thousands of miles from their homes. The difference is that Australia did it until the early 1970s, so there are many more people alive there today who suffer that pain.

If they can determine the area where they were taken from, can’t they regain their heritage by reconnecting with their tribe?
Not always. Since they missed out on the initiation rituals and all the teaching that still is a part of Aboriginal lifestyles, they have a hard time participating fully. And it’s very difficult to cram a lifetime of learning into a few years. This is especially true for people who were shipped off to homes in the coastal cities. They’ve been acculturated to the European lifestyle. No matter how much they learn, few of them will be able to shake the feeling of being an outsider to their own heritage.

Tell me how you found out about the Stolen Generation.
It was quite a shock. I was tooling around Australia in a beat-up Ford sedan. Since I traveled alone for six months, I had a lot of opportunities to meet people. One day I met a fellow named Billie. He told me about his childhood, about having been forcibly removed from his family. I was horrified to think a government would do something like that. He was in his mid-forties, so the assimilation policy had happened very late in the Twentieth Century. That anyone could justify something like that in modern times was unthinkable. Yet there it was.

So Billie’s story struck some cord in you.
Yes. He was in Alice Springs at the time, in the outback. He’d been able to track his family back through the adoption and government papers. Although he was able to meet up again with his brother, he didn’t return to the Alice until two weeks after his father had died.

Are there many stories like Billie’s in Australia?
Too many. He was actually one of the lucky ones. Once UNESCO and the League of Nations started pressuring the Australian government to stop the assimilation, a lot of those missions and orphanages panicked. They didn’t want to be charged with wrongdoing so a lot of the paperwork was destroyed.

The Family Made of Dust wraps these issues into an astonishing plotline. Why did you decide to include the spiritual aspects of Aboriginal culture in the story?
There really wasn’t any choice. Aboriginal lifeways are intrinsically tied to the land. The land lives with the Dreamtime tales, the ancient stories of how things came to be. If you understand the land and how it was created, you understand the proper way to live. There could be no real heart to a story about the Stolen Generation that didn’t contain Aboriginal spirituality.

The antagonist is a powerful shaman. Why did you choose to have what many might consider to be a spiritual person turn out to be so evil?
As the bad guy himself says, there is no good or bad. There are only things that are further from the law, the spiritual law of the outback. Because of his own experiences during the early years of the assimilation policy, his anger festered. He became something bitter, unable to love anything except the power his shamanic knowledge brought. His choice to use his gifts to harm others might be different than how most of us think of spiritually powerful people but it’s also realistic. We all have power and we all make choices about how to use it.

How did you research this book?
That was difficult. There isn’t too much out there on Aborigines that provides the kind of details an author needs to really make a book come alive. It’s important to me to be able to understand a specific cultural or spiritual system well enough that I can “translate” it for mainstream Americans. I relied on a lot of anthropological studies.