Cathy McLennan’s first job as a law graduate was in Townsville’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, an experience that steered her in the direction of advocacy for Indigenous Australians and now, 20 years later having become a renowned magistrate, has led to an unflinching account of her first major case.
It is always a little disquieting when non-Aboriginal Australians tell Indigenous stories, and the ear requires some adjustment early on in McLennan’s book to the pidgin English dialogue and frank portrayal of Palm Islanders as soaks prone to violence. It makes for uncomfortable reading, but this is the world into which McLennan was thrust as she spent every day in court defending A&TSI clients on charges of assault, theft and even murder.
That adults drink and beat on each other is bad enough, but McLennan finds herself thrown in at the deep end when she has to defend children. Four teenage boys are accused of murdering a white man, and are all but hung, drawn and quartered before their lawyer has a chance to investigate. Due process is a warped notion in Queensland, and the constabulary are portrayed as weary, cynical bullies whose ideas regarding innocence were chucked out the window long ago. As one character says, “I know they did it, not because they’re black, but because the police charged them.”
Running alongside McLennan’s desperately frustrating attempt to gather evidence to acquit the boys is her desire to help 11-year-old Olivia, a bright and spunky kid with one lung and foetal alcohol syndrome, who is Townsville’s most notorious petty thief. She is also being sexually abused to an unconscionable degree.
Despite being one of only two or sometimes three lawyers for thousands of clients (others leave the job in an almighty hurry), the community quickly warms to McLennan as they realise she actually gives a damn and is trying her utmost to help.
It almost always ends badly for her clients – most readers will know that going in – yet the book is still compelling. If at times it reads like therapy, any doubts surrounding the author’s motivation for writing such a memoir are dispelled by the devastating afterword. Saltwater is a vital reminder of the oft-ignored netherworld within our borders, where logic and reason have ceded territory to cruelty, apathy and community devastation. JD
UQP, 328pp, $32.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 20, 2016 as "Cathy McLennan, Saltwater". Subscribe here.