Author study: Jeanine Leane
Learning more about an author inevitably shapes the way we read their texts, and this is especially true of life writing. Before students read Purple Threads, facilitate a research activity about the author Jeanine Leane. Guide students to develop their own research questions and record them in a research table (PDF, 91KB). Some of the questions they might ask include:
- Who is Jeanine Leane?
- Where and when was Leane born?
- Where did Leane grow up?
- What are some of the life experiences that impacted Leane’s writing?
Useful links are available under More Resources, including biographical information and blogs. The teacher can either set or allow students to choose the format in which they will present their author studies. Options include a PowerPoint presentation, a report/summary page, or a poster/Sway containing both written and visual information about Leane and her influences.
Australia’s history post-colonisation
This timeline of post-colonial Indigenous history (PDF, 199KB) was prepared by Kate Murphy for Reading Australia’s resource on The 7 Stages of Grieving. Although the timeline is not exhaustive (e.g. it does not list every colonial massacre), it does provide important context for understanding the dispossession and (importantly) the resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Given that this subject is fraught, and a source of immense grief and intergenerational trauma for First Nations Australians, it is important to understand the potential for discussions to be emotional and/or traumatic for both students and teachers.
An alternative to using this timeline is to have students plot their own, reflecting significant events in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history since 1901. A worksheet for this activity is available here (PDF, 118KB). Suggested websites for research include:
- the Parliament of Australia
- ABC News
- the National Museum of Australia
- the Australian Human Rights Commission
- Reconciliation Australia
- Share Our Pride
Acknowledgments of Country
On p. 158 of Purple Threads, Leane acknowledges the people who have inspired and guided her. She also acknowledges her Wiradjuri ancestors, Elders past and present, and the Ngunnawal people on whose land she lives. Students can read about acknowledging Country and the differences between an Acknowledgment of and Welcome to Country. Both show respect for the traditional custodians of the land, and (for non-Indigenous peoples) promote appreciation for and awareness of First Nations peoples and cultures.
Read aloud Leane’s Acknowledgment at the bottom of p. 158. Discuss it with students, distinguishing ‘country’ from ‘Country’ (information from Reconciliation Australia may be useful here).
Then direct students to the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia to look at the nations, languages or social groups represented. Explain that the map is a visual reminder of the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia.
The Wiradjuri language
Explain to students that the Wiradjuri are the First Nations people of central-western NSW. In the 1900s the Wiradjuri language was almost brought to extinction as a result of colonisation (Leane herself does not speak the language). In the 21st century, however, it has been revived and is now taught in some schools in NSW. Students may or may not be aware that the English words ‘kookaburra’ and ‘quandong’ come from Wiradjuri words; verbally provide these examples and ask students if they know any other words in the Wiradjuri language.
Show students the ABC Indigenous video ‘Learn words in the Wiradjuri language of NSW’, then direct them to work in pairs to create a similar video for their classmates. Assign each pair a category or letter from the Wiradjuri dictionary app. The pairs are to choose three words and create a one-minute video that showcases their pronunciation and meaning. Play the completed videos in class.
To consolidate their learning, students could complete some of the activities from the SBS Learn and University of Sydney Wiradjuri workbooks, Volume 1: Ngumbaay (Sounds, Numbers, People & Family) and Volume 2: Bula (Family Terms, Body Parts and Colours).
Class genre study: memory and writing
Facilitate a class discussion about genre by asking:
Is Purple Threads a novel? A memoir? Does it matter?
To help students get started, share Leane’s own descriptions of the text as an ‘episodic novel’ (01:00) or ‘collective memoir in fictionalised form’ (01:35). Display these phrases and discuss what they might mean. Explain that Purple Threads was influenced by the author’s childhood, but is not an autobiography. This Western term, in Leane’s view, is too singular to adequately describe either the novel or the type of life writing that Aboriginal peoples might undertake. Likewise, debating whether or not the stories are ‘true’ conforms to a Western worldview. Instead, Leane sees Purple Threads as a type of fictionalised life writing.
Throughout the discussion, draw students’ attention to the following concepts:
|In what ways are the stories separate, distinct or ‘episodic’?
|Do Leane’s stories include real people, events and places? Is there a sense of reflection as the stories are told? Explain that ‘memoir’ comes from the French word mémoire, which means ‘memory’, ‘remembering’ or ‘reminiscence’. ‘Memoir’ is sometimes considered a sub-genre of autobiography.
|Does this word suggest that the stories are made-up, or the details imagined in some way?
Following the discussion, guide students to consolidate their understandings in this worksheet (PDF, 123KB).
Growing up surrounded by strong women
Framed by this understanding of genre and the power of memory in memoir, the influence of Leane’s experiences growing up surrounded by strong women comes alive in Purple Threads. Listen to Leane’s interview with Daniel Browning for the ABC Radio National program AWAYE!. Listen twice to the section from 20:20–23:34. During and after the second listen, have students record the lessons Leane’s aunties taught her growing up. They can make notes using this worksheet (PDF, 117KB). This is a useful activity leading up to the Rich Assessment Task (Creating) in the Informed Reaction section, in which students conduct an interview with a woman in their lives they consider to be strong.
Personal response on reading the text
Using symbols to represent meaning in each chapter
Print enough copies of the symbols worksheet (PDF, 94KB) for the class. As students read Purple Threads, they can draw one to three symbols that represent a main idea or theme for each chapter. They could then use these drawings to make mobiles or posters for display around the room. Alternatively, they could collect objects that symbolise an event, theme or idea from each chapter and create a ‘memory box’ in which to store them.
Some of the early lessons in this unit could be spent in small groups, with students sharing their symbols and explaining what they represent and why they chose them.
Asking questions of the text
Encourage students to devise their own questions as they read; what are they wondering? What would they like to know? Read aloud an extract from the text and model how to ask questions while reading. For example, you might model wondering about p. 1:
- Why is Aunty Boo looking for dead or injured sheep?
- Why is Aunty Boo swearing and calling people stupid?
- What does Nan mean when she refers to her ‘station’ in life?
- Why is this important?
Asking questions of the text encourages students to build interest and engagement, and to become stronger readers as they confront aspects of the work that are unfamiliar or curious. More information about this type of questioning can be found here.
As students read the text, guide them to complete ‘before’, ‘during’ and ‘after’ questions in their journals or workbooks. They can draw up a three-column table like the one depicted here, or create their own layout to represent the three types of questions:
- questions I have before reading
- questions I have during reading
- questions I have after reading
This activity encourages critical reading and aids comprehension skills. The teacher should then run class discussions at various points before, during and after reading to ask students questions about the text. This method highlights reading as a process of active inquiry. It also recognises that engaged readers approach a text with questions and develop new ones as they progress.
Encourage students to complete the chapter questions (PDF, 122KB) for Purple Threads as they read. This is a useful comprehension strategy and memory aid. For those stories/chapters without questions, students can devise their own. The questions can be answered individually or in pairs, then shared with the class to stimulate discussion about the events and important ideas in those chapters.
Outline of key elements of the text
The episodic structure of this novel means that there are gaps between the chapters, rather than a completely linear narrative. Although we can read the book as a collection of short stories, we can still identify a ‘plot’: one that follows three generations of Aboriginal women who tell their stories and, in so doing, re-write colonial narratives and national myths about equality and freedom. The stories are narrated by an Aboriginal girl named Sunny who, along with her sister Star, is raised by her Nan, Aunty Boo and Aunty Bubby in outer Gundagai. There are many plot summaries available online, including the publisher’s synopsis and a review on the Whispering Gums blog with good character details.
Students can access these as the need arises.
Cloze reading activity
In addition to reading a plot summary together, conduct a cloze reading activity. Cloze reading requires students to choose words from a list to fill blank spaces in passages. This helps them to recognise relationships in language and identify structural patterns, both of which aid prediction. Other benefits include developing an awareness of contextual clues; practising with new vocabulary; and improving language skills by selecting appropriate word classes. Cloze reading also aids scanning and search reading skills.
Distribute this cloze reading activity (PDF, 126KB) for students to complete. Alternatively, you could provide a range of plot summaries and direct students to create their own cloze passages. They could then share these with their peers for additional practise and to consolidate their understanding of the plot.
1. Group or individual task: creating a ‘found’ poem
A found poem takes its name from the way the poem is created: from words ‘found’ in another text. For this task, students will use the blurb of Purple Threads as their source text.
Working individually or in small groups, students are to select any words and phrases from the blurb that stand out or seem powerful, descriptive, thematic or in any other way appealing. They will plan out and reorganise these words and phrases to compose their own poems. They may borrow line structures from other poems, but their own work should focus on a different topic. More detailed instructions (including a video) are available here.
Students will then take turns reading out their poems to their classmates.
2. Individual task: collage
The collages can be discussed and then displayed around the classroom for the duration of the unit. Alternatively, students can use software such as PicCollage, Photoshop Mix or Canva to create these displays.
3. Collaborative task: word wall
Direct students to create a word or graffiti wall where they collaboratively explore the meanings of key words related to the text. Assign each student a word that is significant in terms of theme, context or style. Some examples are included in the table below.
Each student is to write their word clearly in the middle of an A3 sheet of paper or poster card. The words will then be arranged around the room so that students can walk between them, adding associated words, phrases or even images. These can remain in the room until the completion of the unit.
4. Individual task: why this text? Why now?
Guide students to write a paragraph that responds to the question:
Why this text? Why now?
Explain that this question asks, ‘Why are we studying Purple Threads at this point in time?’ Students should be as specific as possible in their responses. Depending on your cohort, you may scaffold this further by writing the question on the board and brainstorming as a class. Arguments might include curriculum links, ideas about being human, and understanding people and the world. For example:
- sharing good writing that tells funny and warm stories that are engaging to read
- studying a unique form and effective control of stylistic devices such as symbols, motifs and narrative voice
- centralising voices that are often peripheral in the classroom
- promoting a range of representations, cultural understandings and perspectives
- celebrating people who are family-centred, compassionate and resilient
- foregrounding women and stories of multiple generations living in one house
The writer’s craft
Features of form and structure
In the Initial Response section, students explored the significance of the novel’s form and discussed different genres like autobiography and memoir. They also considered how Purple Threads can be considered a novel. Building on this, Dr Helena Kadmos classifies Purple Threads as a ‘short story cycle’ because, to her, it is a collection of ‘independent yet interrelated short narratives, whose individual stories can stand alone, although each is connected to the other in one or more of several ways’ (Country and Identity, p. 1). In elaborating, she identifies the following connections across the chapters or stories:
- Sunny’s narrative voice and point of view
- themes about belonging and identity
- a small group of characters
Write these connections on the board (or ask students to identify some connections first), then discuss them. What other patterns or links exist across the text? Students can refer to their linked symbols worksheet (Initial Response) to identify any repeated symbols or motifs. They could present their work as a spider diagram or concept map (digital or hand-drawn) that represents ‘Connections in Purple Threads’.
Use of motifs, parallels and contrasts
The significance of the title: a close reading activity
Revisit 14:38–19:55 of Leane’s interview with David Browning. Here she reads an extract from Purple Threads, including a reference to the Greek philosopher Epictetus (pp. 108–109) and his relevance to the novel’s title. Model a close reading with the class, using these pages to examine the title’s significance as the ultimate connection or tie in the novel. A process for close reading is outlined here and here. In short, it involves reading a text aloud and annotating it for meaning, focusing on the what (meaning, content) and how (devices, construction).
The story about Epictetus gives meaning to the purple motif that recurs throughout the book. You might extend your discussion with students by highlighting parallels between the threads and other flows in nature, such as the flow of the Murrumbidgee River, the changing of the seasons, or even Songlines in First Nations cultures. As ‘threads’, Leane’s stories reflect other symbioses in the novel, including those within nature, between Sunny’s family and nature, and among the past, present and future.
Direct students to complete this worksheet (PDF, 130KB) to draw out the meanings of the textual references to purple. You could assign pairs of students one quote each and ask them to complete that row of the table before sharing their work with the rest of the class. The rows that do not contain quotes present an opportunity for students to get to know the text more closely; they will locate the relevant quotes themselves.
Functions of setting
As setting encompasses the time and place in which a story occurs, it necessarily includes the attitudes and values of that time and place. In Purple Threads, the setting is broader Gundagai in the 1960s and 70s, as well as specific locations such as the church, school or Cooper’s place. Explain to students that the setting is not simply a backdrop to events. In any story it can:
- symbolise or construct certain aspects, values and psychological states of characters
- contribute to themes
- create mood and atmosphere
Have students complete this table (PDF, 123KB) to consolidate their understanding of the functions of setting.
Locating Gundagai on a map
Central to any reading of Purple Threads is a sense of place and Country. Gundagai, the place where Sunny grows up, is part of the traditional lands of the Wiradjuri people; this awareness infiltrates the stories of her experiences.
Show students some images of Gundagai to help them imagine what it would have looked like at the time (see here, here and here). Then display a map of the area and point out that, geographically, the Wiradjuri nation is the largest of NSW’s First Nations (and likely the largest in terms of its population, too). Emphasise that the Wiradjuri people have a close connection with Marrambidya Bila (the Murrumbidgee River) and its surrounds. This is evident in Nan’s story about Yarri and Jacky-Jacky, as well as the many references to farming, flooding and flood risk.
The Gundagai flood of 1852
To develop students’ geographical and historical understanding of the area, and to help them prepare for the upcoming Synthesising Tasks, encourage them to explore the History Teachers’ Association of Australia (HTAA) unit on the 1852 Gundagai flood. The introduction outlines a process for inquiry. Students can read the background information and view the plaque that commemorates this tragic event. They could even use the 5W planning scaffold to assist with their note-taking.
Have students use their notes to write a news report on the Gundagai flood. Information on the different parts of a news story (and how to write a newspaper article) is available from ABC Education and The Guardian Foundation. There is also a basic but useful summary from the Wet Tropics Management Authority.
The Gundagai flood is a significant historical event that is recounted in the novel by Nan (pp. 124–125). Read this section as a class, starting from ‘In Gundagai the water rose’. This presents an opportunity to focus on the concept of perspective. Perspective refers to the position from which things like events or issues are viewed; it is the lens through which we see the world. Present this (or your own) definition to students, reminding them that this ‘lens’ is ideological: that is, perspective represents and is shaped by values, attitudes and ideologies, and is informed by context(s).
Explain to students that they are reading pp. 124–125 to focus on Nan’s perspective, including how it is constructed through language and stylistic features, and how it positions readers to interpret an Aboriginal perspective on a historical event. Following any discussions about perspective and/or the extract, ask students to complete the following tasks:
- Closely read and annotate the extract, identifying the techniques used to construct a perspective of mid-19th century attitudes towards Aboriginal peoples.
- Write a short response to the question: ‘How does the representation of Aboriginal peoples reveal particular attitudes in a specific context?’
How setting makes meaning
The physical landscapes in Leane’s stories bring life to the setting, making it difficult to separate a sense of place from the women’s emotional life experiences. Kadmos contends that ‘the individual stories provide self-contained explorations of the women’s understanding of, attitudes to, and relationships with country and home’ (Country and Identity, p. 4). Using the organising features presented in Kadmos’ article, analyse how the short story cycle emphasises different aspects of Country and place that can be drawn together, like threads, into a broader reading of setting across the text. This worksheet (PDF, 128KB) may assist students with reading Country and place in this way.
Another approach to the study of setting in Purple Threads is to explore its rurality. Distribute the aforementioned worksheet and assign different examples to different pairs of students. They should analyse how the description of setting, specifically of greater Gundagai, makes meaning.
There are other individual settings in the novel; brainstorm these as a class and list them on the board. Then form small groups of three or four, assigning each group a different setting. Students are to work together to create an A3 poster or Google Slide of relevant quotes and drawings/images. These should describe the assigned setting and depict any significant events that happen there. Settings that could be used for this activity include:
- the church
- the school
- Cooper’s farm
- the dress shop
- Jericho, Queensland
- around the fire
Piece the finished posters together to make a mural for the classroom or, if digital, assemble the final pieces and share them with the class.
Approach to characterisation
The household consists of Sunny (Sunshine), her sister Star, her grandmother (Nan), and Aunties Boo (Beulah) and Bubby (Lily). Remind students that characters develop alongside the narrative, with the main aspects of character construction including:
- narrative thoughts
- interactions with other characters
- settings and symbols associated with that character
Have students complete the characterisation worksheet (PDF, 118KB) to summarise the main qualities of some of Leane’s characters.
Point of view
Sunny is the narrator of Purple Threads. Point out to students that her tales of growing up are not about school or friendships, but rather family life and the telling of stories. Sunny’s own stories are narrated from a first-person point of view that is also, at times, naive. The book focuses on retelling significant experiences from her life. The stories are fragmented, as memories often are, but – in the context of an Aboriginal writer recalling her childhood – they reflect how a lifetime of stories contributes to personal and cultural identity.
Revise with students what is meant by first-person point of view and the naive narrator. Complete the point of view worksheet (PDF, 142KB) to analyse the effects of Sunny’s narration on our understanding of and response to the novel.
Language and style
Close reading: descriptive language
Invite students to turn to p. 2 and read from ‘If the rains fail’ to the end of p. 3. They should read silently and note any imagery that they find particularly vivid, engaging, familiar or unusual. In pairs, they will take turns verbally describing the scenes they imagine.
Now direct students to re-read the extract, this time looking for the words or phrases that informed their mental images. These can be used to make a word cloud. The aim is to draw out the distinctive features of Gundagai, made poetic by Leane’s descriptive language.
Once all students have read the extract, explore these questions as a class:
- What stylistic features do you notice in this extract? Discussion points might include dramatic visual detail; references to weather, land and nature’s elements; and the connection between people and the land.
- What is the effect of including such a descriptive episode so early in the text? You might discuss how it highlights the significance of the land, weather patterns and cycles of nature, or how it foreshadows the danger of storms.
Finally, guide students to choose an extract of a similar length from elsewhere in the text, and write their own descriptive passage in the style of Leane.
Text and meaning
Exploration of themes and ideas
Revise with students the definition of a theme: an idea, issue or concern developed in a text. Remind them that a theme is sustained, continuous or recurring, and that texts usually contain more than one. This worksheet (PDF, 131KB), based on a teaching video by Sara Johnson, outlines a four-stage paired or group activity that encourages students to explore the themes in Purple Threads. Those that might be identified include:
- belonging and home
- growing up
Synthesising task (in three parts)
1. Building a rural scene
Invite students to construct the scenes they imagined in the Close Reading: Descriptive Language activity above. They can create a diorama or other model of the scene they imaged when reading pp. 2–3 of the text.
2. Bringing setting to life in another medium
Ask students to demonstrate what they have learned about Gundagai and the surrounding country by transferring their understandings to another medium. Their task is to create an infographic to promote Gundagai to an adult audience (see an example here). They may use an online infographic generator such as Piktochart or Canva. Alternatively, students can work in pairs to create a short promotional film instead.
3. Bringing setting to life in another form
Encourage students to create their own free verse poem using the words they identified in the Close Reading: Descriptive Language activity above. Using an online poem generator makes this a particularly fun activity.
Ways of reading the text
Revise what is meant by the term ‘gendered reading’ (one that foregrounds representations of gender and challenges the expectations, roles and social constructs of what it means to be male and female). Have students read Purple Threads with a focus on gender, forming groups of three or four to respond to one of the following questions.
- What ideas about femininity are normalised or challenged in the text?
- What ideas about masculinity are normalised or challenged in the text?
- Which characters are depicted as passive and which as active?
- In what ways is femininity portrayed as a weakness or an asset?
- In what ways is masculinity portrayed as a weakness or an asset?
- How do the social structures of the text reward or punish particular genders for their physical features and abilities?
- What is the effect of silencing or omitting a particular gender from the text?
Each group should write their assigned question in the centre of an A3 sheet of paper, then write examples all around it that help answer that question. Groups should then take turns presenting their answers to the class.
Point out that a feminist perspective can emerge from this exercise, and that Purple Threads lends itself to a feminist reading given the strength of its female characters, their close bonds, and the centrality of their story. Students can also consider the extent of the women’s power:
- To what extent did they have agency?
- In what ways did they outsmart men?
Other points for discussion might include:
- women as witches (pp. 103, 107–108)
- domestic violence (‘Lying dogs’, pp. 110–128)
- manipulation of men (pp. 25–26, 133, 138–140)
- suspicion of men (pp. 141–144)
The novel can also be read as offering an eco-critical perspective. Leane’s women have a strong sense of culture’s debt to nature, regarding the environment as a force to be listened to and respected. Eco-critics can be said to examine nature in order to defend it, and view this defence as a pursuit of justice. Direct students to apply some of the typical questions of eco-criticism (based on a now-defunct section of the Purdue Online Writing Lab) to Purple Threads:
- How is nature represented in the text?
- How is the setting related to the environment?
- How do the roles or representations of men and women’s attitudes towards the environment differ?
- Where is the environment placed in the power hierarchy?
- How is nature empowered or oppressed in this work?
- What parallels can be drawn between the sufferings and oppression of groups of people (in this case, women) and treatment of the land?
Of course, there are many more questions that students may wish to ask in relation to Purple Threads. They could also look up the following page references for examples of nature’s significance in the lives of Leane’s women (and, therefore, in the feminine):
- The passing of the seasons (pp. 114–115, 117–118, 128–129, 142, 153)
- The images of flowers and the floral motifs (pp. 13, 22–23, 29, 45, 50, 75–76, 111, 128–129, 156)
- The motif of the river (pp. 111–112, 120, 124–125)
- The joy of fruit (pp. 49, 113–114)
Comparisons with other texts
Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip
In her Reading Australia resource for Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip, Cara Shipp identifies Purple Threads as a useful contrast text. She compares the way the two novels use Aboriginal English, explore family secrets and characterise family members – Petal, for instance – who ‘run away’ from their problems. Cara’s assessment is that Purple Threads is ‘somewhat more positive and optimistic than Lucashenko’s novel, and therefore provides a useful counterexample of Aboriginal family life, but still with enough commonalities to highlight the impacts of colonisation’.
The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature
Wiradjuri woman, academic and writer Dr Anita Heiss has written and spoken about the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature (which she co-edited), and the fact that many Aboriginal people write as a political act. Show students this short video and ask them to consider the reasons Heiss gives for why Aboriginal people write. In the second half of the video, she talks about the writing styles often employed by Aboriginal writers. In Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, also edited by Heiss, similar insights are provided and expanded upon (see the Reading Australia resource for this text). These provide useful segues into the study of Language, Style and Purpose below.
Purple Threads extends the motif of connections or threads by making references to other texts and stories. Display the word ‘allusion’ and define it for students (i.e. a reference in a text to another text, story, character, person or event). It may be useful to distinguish ‘allusion’ from ‘illusion’. Allusions require readers to make connections between texts: the one being alluded to, and the one making the allusion. Ask students if they remember any stories being mentioned in Purple Threads. Write their answers on the board, then distribute this worksheet (PDF, 127KB) to encourage students to compare the texts and analyse how meaning is enhanced through these connections.
Evaluation of the text
A representation of Australian culture?
In Purple Threads, stories, perceptions and myths of nation are revised and represented from an Aboriginal perspective. By focusing on the yarns of three generations of women spanning multiple social and historical contexts, Leane challenges a dominant Australian culture that identifies with freedom, equality and paradise for the white working man. Nan’s story about Yarri and Jacky-Jacky, for example (pp. 124–125), provides an alternative perspective on Australia’s history and offers a counter-history from the margins.
Australian history as told from the centre is a white history, in which brave, white, male pioneers tamed a hostile environment and brought ‘civilisation’ and ‘prosperity’ to the nation. The gaps and silences in this history are filled with the stories and contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including recounts of the ways white settlers damaged the natural landscape. Direct students to contrast colonial approaches to the land and animals with that of Leane’s women using this scaffolded approach (PDF, 115KB).
Once students have completed their tables, explain that the ‘settler’ narrative has been part of Australia’s nation-building and continues to inform its mainstream cultural mythology. Stories and images of the white settler, conquering both the landscape and their own isolation, tend to be retrospective; they celebrate a ‘heroic’ past rather than acknowledging the ongoing traumas, dispossession and colonisation enacted through contemporary systems and social structures. This is why Purple Threads is such an important text: it connects Sunny’s experiences of growing up to Australia’s colonial history and, in so doing, sheds light on events that have too often been left in the dark.
Significance in the world of texts
Literary prizes: the David Unaipon Award
Literary prizes are important for acknowledging excellent writing, guiding readers’ choices, contributing to the literary canon, and making a statement about cultural values.
Purple Threads won the 2010 David Unaipon Award, and was shortlisted for both the Commonwealth Book Prize and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Display the portrait of David Unaipon that can be found on the Australian fifty dollar note, then direct students to discover more about the Award. They can read the very front and back pages of the novel, and check the Reserve Bank of Australia or AustLit websites as starting points. Have them answer the following questions in their journals or workbooks:
- When was the David Unaipon Award established?
- Why and by whom was the David Unaipon Award established?
- What does the David Unaipon Award recognise?
- Which other authors have won the David Unaipon Award?
- Why do you think Leane’s Purple Threads won the Award?
Language, style and purpose
Yarning: structure and dialogue
In the second half of this video, Dr Anita Heiss discusses the conversational style of Aboriginal writing. She explains that there is a greater divide between the written and spoken word for non-Aboriginal writers compared to Aboriginal writers, who are ‘telling a yarn’. The idea of yarning can be read into the very structure of texts. In Purple Threads each chapter has its own yarn, with the story’s ending often hinted at from the start (e.g. the opening lines of ‘Waiting for Petal’ on p. 18: ‘Petal was everyone’s darling. Everyone’s but mine’).
With so much of the story told through dialogue, it is the style and structure of yarning that gives the book energy and makes it engaging. Have students find examples of this lively and convincing dialogue and discuss how it develops voice in the narrative. The following quotes may help them get started:
- ‘… youse hafta look respectable jus’ like me an’ Bubby an’ all the other Aunties did when we were little. An’ white people, they think churches are respectable an’ sometimes ya hafta go along with what other people think, jus’ to stay outta trouble.’ (p. 12)
- ‘Well,’ said Nan, ‘least none o’ us has ta worry ‘bout churches no more, ‘cept ta send the kids ta Sunday school. Cold places I always thought, churches.’ (p. 46)
- ‘You jus’ talk about somethin’ good on the way home, girl, like the nice bubby she’s got.’ (p. 116)
Ask students about what they generally find funny. As a class, discuss what makes something funny and what the effects of humour can be. Confirm that humour can:
- expose foolishness or ineptitude
- resist or reject authority or flout convention
- highlight a truth or soften a social comment
- provide comic relief
- construct a character or develop a theme
- promote cohesion or unity in a group
The humour in Purple Threads also contributes to the warmth of the storytelling and the feelings of connection between the women and girls. Direct students to complete the humour table (PDF, 125KB), noting the effects and functions of the humour in each example provided. For the rows that do not list any examples, students can add their own.
Rich assessment task (responding)
Dr Helena Kadmos has written that ‘both the independence and interrelatedness of [the] stories in the text work to dramatise many complex issues about identity’ (Country and Identity, p. 2). Discuss how the form and structure of Purple Threads work to highlight issues of identity.
Synthesising core ideas
Reflecting on initial responses
1. Word wall
Give students the opportunity to revisit to their word wall from the Initial Response section of this unit (Synthesising Tasks > Collaborative Task). Encourage them to re-read their initial word choices and add any words they now see as significant but did not initially include. Allow time to add and revise as needed. Check their reflections by asking each student:
- Have you deleted or added any words?
- Why or why not?
2. ‘Before’, ‘during’ and ‘after’ reading questions
Remind students to revisit and complete their ‘before’, ‘during’ and ‘after’ reading questions (Initial Response > Asking Questions of the Text). They should add any new questions they have thought of to the ‘after’ column. They could share their questions in a think-pair-share arrangement or as a teacher-facilitated whole class discussion. This presents an opportunity to encourage critical thinking about the text, and to reflect on both the text and its themes and issues.
3. Rewriting the blurb
Have students read the blurb on the back cover of Purple Threads. Their task is to write a new blurb aimed at a young adult audience. As a rough guide, they should aim for 100–150 words. Revise the purpose and conventions of blurbs through a whole class discussion. Some details and features you might discuss include:
- a mention of the main characters
- plot and setting details (but no spoilers)
- suspense or some type of ‘hook’
- word choices and images that are evocative and consistent with the genre
- quotes about the book or previous books by the author (optional)
- about the author (optional)
Instruct students to plan and draft their blurbs here (PDF, 91KB), paying special attention to their young adult audience. Encourage them to consider what young adults would find engaging in terms of story, themes and language.
An extension of this activity is to have students redesign the front cover of Purple Threads (digitally or by hand). They should annotate the new cover to identify and explain any design choices they made. You can explain that, by doing this, students are demonstrating what they have learned throughout their novel study and what they can create in response to a text.
NOTE: There is a passing reference to smoking marijuana in this section.
Ask students to define ‘epilogue’: a section of a text that acts as a supplementary part of the main story. Epi- means ‘after’ or ‘on top of’, and -logue means ‘word’, so in a way this is the author’s ‘final word’. The purpose of an epilogue is to bring closure to a text; it often ties up loose ends of the plot and lets readers know what happened to the characters in the story. In Purple Threads, the epilogue also reveals a shift in perspective. Sunny is no longer a girl, and we instead hear the voice of an older, experienced narrator: ‘I was a big woman by then, and the Aunties said they’d finished growing me up’ (p. 152).
Read the Epilogue together as a class, noting how it ties up loose ends and reveals what happened to the characters. Next, organise students into groups of three or four and assign each group one of the following questions. They are to make notes on a poster or sheet of butchers’ paper in response to their assigned question, then present their findings verbally to the class. The posters can be displayed around the room.
- How does the Epilogue influence your reading of earlier stories (e.g. Milli and Alfi)?
- Examine the change in voice in the Epilogue. Which examples stand out and what effects do they have? Choose three.
- Examine the change in perspective in the Epilogue. Which examples stand out and what effects do they have? Choose three.
- Identify the distinctive textual and language features in the Epilogue. What is their significance in terms of their meaning?
- How does the Epilogue enhance the credibility of the text? Does it add authority to the stories?
- How do your own experiences and contexts shape your reading of the Epilogue?
What is your reading?
As a way of synthesising students’ responses to the whole text, have them contemplate:
How do I read Purple Threads?
Write this question on the board and give students a verbal overview of what a reading is, including the concept of multiple readings:
- Texts are open to interpretation; they can be read in a number of ways.
- Readings vary according to what the reader emphasises or values, or depending on the reading strategies they employ.
- Readers can focus on representations of gender, race, culture or social issues, OR on generic conventions, language features, etc.
Using a text they have already studied in class, give students an example of how they might ‘read’ a work. You could also give a more general example, explaining that a reading focused on social class will notice and be critical of exploitation of the poor and economically-disadvantaged, and will also express concern for systems of power that perpetuate class hierarchies.
- Purple Threads is a heart-warming collection of stories about women who greatly care for each other and their land.
- The book does not make men look very good. The male characters are lazy, violent or otherwise unreliable.
- The stories create beautiful imagery and show a deep respect for the natural environment.
- Purple Threads offers a unique perspective on the Australian country lifestyle, where Indigenous women know how to farm and care for land and animals better than any white man.
- Purple Threads reminds me that family support provides people with the strength to achieve against the odds.
- The historical reality of the Stolen Generations is an undercurrent throughout the book.
Once all students have contributed, allow them to copy and paste the different readings into their own document titled: ‘My Readings of Purple Threads’. Have them choose five to ten readings that they support and rank them from most to least true (for them). Students may give more than one reading the same ranking, but they need to be able to justify their decision. Arrange students into groups of three or four to discuss which readings they chose, where they ranked them and why.
Wider cultural value
Why this text? Why now? A revised view
Now that students have read and studied the text, they have more information to support their response to the earlier Individual Task question: ‘Why this text? Why now?’ (Initial Response > Synthesising Tasks). Encourage them to re-visit their paragraphs and revise or add to them to refine or extend their argument.
Rich assessment tasks
1. Audio interview (creating)
Refer back to the handout (PDF, 117KB) students completed on Growing Up Surrounded by Strong Women (Initial Response).
There is no question that the stories in Purple Threads capture Leane’s experiences of growing up surrounded by strong women. In this speaking and listening task, students are to choose a woman in their lives – a relative, teacher, coach or other figure – that they consider to be strong or a good leader. They will record an audio interview with this woman, asking questions about her family, history and life lessons learned, with the goal of revealing her strength.
Interviews are not only a very popular form, but they also help develop students’ speaking and listening skills because they require the interviewer to both manage and participate in a conversation. Interviews also help students to develop their research skills as they devise relevant questions to learn more about their interviewee and their life experiences.
Once edited, the finished interview should play for five to six minutes. A task sheet and assessment criteria are available here (PDF, 141KB), and some approaches to teaching interview techniques can be found here.
2. Extended response (responding)
You can assess students’ understanding and skills with an essay or extended response. Depending on your learning sequence, you could set this as either an in-class or take-home assessment task. You may wish to give students a choice of topics; suggestions include:
- Susan Garland Mann argues that the short story cycle, which we see in Purple Threads, is ‘both self-sufficient and interrelated’ (Kadmos, Country and Identity, p. 3). Discuss how the text’s structure and organisation influence your reading of Purple Threads.
- Explain how being aware of allusions to other stories has enriched your understanding of at least one chapter in Purple Threads.
- Explore how literature can be important for the way it acknowledges a nation’s past.
- Discuss how the ending of a text positions readers to respond to its themes or ideas.
Assessment rubrics or marking criteria for essays are context-dependent and often prescribed by curriculum authorities in each jurisdiction, or by schools themselves. The Year 10 Achievement Standards are available online, along with work samples that can inform your assessment approaches.