The best books about "new" histories

Who am I?

I studied Human Zoos, the subject of Paris Savages, for my PhD. Tens of thousands of performers were transported to Europe and America for exhibition, reaching a peak in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, the stories of this time are largely Eurocentric. I sought to shine a light evocatively into this largely forgotten part of history, and to see it through fresh eyes. Paris Savages is an epic and very human tale that saw me reflect on teenage memories of exploring Fraser island. I also travelled to Europe to follow in the footsteps of the three Aboriginal performers the story is based on: Bonny, Jurano, and Dorondera.

I wrote...

Paris Savages

By Katherine Johnson,

Book cover of Paris Savages

What is my book about?

Based on a true story, Paris Savages takes us from beautiful Fraser Island, Australia, to belle-epoque Europe in 1882, where three young Aboriginal (Badtjala) people were taken to perform as mass entertainment. "This is a story that needed to be told." Rohan Wilson, The Australian.

When Louis Müller offers to sail eighteen-year-old Bonny, Jurano, and his niece, Dorondera, to Europe, Bonny agrees. He hopes to ask the English Queen to stop the massacres of his people. Accompanied by Müller’s daughter, Hilda, the group journey to perform in Hamburg, Berlin, Paris, and eventually London, but the enthusiasm of the crowds and scientists is relentless. A story of love, bravery, and the fight against injustice, Paris Savages brings a little-known part of history to blazing life.

The books I picked & why

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The White Girl

By Tony Birch,

Book cover of The White Girl

Why this book?

I had the privilege of interviewing Tony Birch at Perth Festival 2020, just before COVID struck with force. I was deeply moved by The White Girl and felt so much for the characters, especially the matriarch, Odette, and her love for her granddaughter. Seeing the world through Odette’s eyes was a powerful way of exposing how prejudice, policing laws and the removal of children impacted Aboriginal communities throughout Australia. Tony spoke beautifully in our interview about the strength of the Aboriginal women in his family and how those experiences inspired the award-winning novel.

The Secret River

By Kate Grenville,

Book cover of The Secret River

Why this book?

Kate Grenville explores colonisation and its impact on indigenous people through the eyes of settlers who are at times blind to their missteps – such as the removal of food crops that were important to the local Aboriginal population, the Dharug people of the Hawkesbury region. The vivid way Grenville exposes the brutality of the removal of Aboriginal people from their land will stay with me always. Grenville draws on her own family’s settler history to tell the story; aware of not being able to speak for the Aboriginal people’s experience, she includes only a few words of Aboriginal dialogue, with Long Jack, a massacre survivor, saying simply "My place" to communicate, in no uncertain terms, that the land belongs to him, not the settler he is talking to. The novel points to the silences in a family, and in a nation.

The Yield

By Tara June Winch,

Book cover of The Yield

Why this book?

The Yield and my book came out about the same time. I loved reading this work by an Aboriginal author about a character whose name reminded me of a place where I spent much of my childhood, on a relative’s farm at Goondiwindi in western Queensland. The Yield is a beautifully written novel, with language at its heart. The way the reader is encouraged to feel the indigenous words, to roll them around in their mouth, and feel them with their tongue, is very powerful. There is a scene in this book of a tree falling over and exposing its roots, plus the bones of a massacre site. I will not forget this scene. 

Scary Monsters: A Novel in Two Parts

By Michelle de Kretser,

Book cover of Scary Monsters: A Novel in Two Parts

Why this book?

I have just started reading this book (actually listening to it as an audiobook) and already it is one of my favourites. De Kretser is such an incredible writer. I found myself ‘rewinding’ the audiobook to hear sentences again and again. I lived with my young family in France in 2012 for the year, and De Kretser’s observations of French life are so (at times) cuttingly on point. I particularly loved the repetition of whether or not something was deemed interessant. "What is interesting about potatoes?" she asks. Her exposure of the historical French treatment of Algerians is woven into the Parisian narrative seamlessly, and at times shockingly. De Kretser is a very powerful, clever, and generous writer. 

Remembering Babylon

By David Malouf,

Book cover of Remembering Babylon

Why this book?

The book provided instructive reading when I was researching my book. In particular, I was interested in Malouf’s way of approaching the story of colonisation in Australia through an ‘in-between’ character, Gemmy, modelled on a real-life ship’s boy cast ashore in northern Australia in the early nineteenth century. The boy is raised by Aboriginal people. He loses his mother tongue and, when confronted with white settlers, is treated as a ‘savage,' a theme the book explores through a range of points of view. Who are the true savages in the story was a question I was interested to pose in my own book

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Indigenous Australians, Australia, and 19th century?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Indigenous Australians, Australia, and 19th century.

Indigenous Australians Explore 11 books about Indigenous Australians
Australia Explore 169 books about Australia
19th Century Explore 327 books about 19th century

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Boy from the Mish, The Songlines, and The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia if you like this list.