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The Family Made of Dust: A Novel of Loss and Rebirth in the Australian Outback

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(ISBN: 978-0982239919, New Cover Edition)


A generation, stolen. A life, devastated.

Forty-five year old Gabriel Branch is a man displaced. Growing up a biracial Australian Aborigine, his only attempt to contact the family he was ripped from was a failed attempt to view his adoption records, files that were destroyed decades ago.

Now his best friend, Ian McCabe, has disappeared in the red desert of the Outback, forcing him away from his home on the Queensland coast. His only clue is a Message Stick, an aboriginal artifact Ian sent him before his disappearance.

As he searches the now alien landscape for the last true connection he had, memories of a life forgotten return unbidden. Memories of the uncle who swung him up into a tree and called him Little Breeze. Memories of the mother he lost. Memories of the candy that lured him and his brother to the bitter orphanage where the two were separated, first by beds and then by families. Haunted by these images, Gabe struggles to deny them. It’s the only thing preserving the fragile peace he has made with that long-ago loss.

But Dana Pukatja, the head of a black market smuggling ring, also begins to haunt him. A Pitjantjatjara shaman with a broken moral compass, Dana uses the traditional methods of a karadji, or ritual executioner, to stalk Gabe through the outback. Gabe’s carefully constructed psychological defenses begin to crumble.

Armed with a totem animal and the sorcerer's own tricks, Gabe must learn the fate of his friend before Dana destroys him.

The Family Made of Dust is a remarkable story about the special relationships families can have even when they have been broken apart…and how a spare and beautiful landscape imbued with the mystical energy of the Dreamtime can resurrect that which we hold so dear.

If you’re a fan of Sara Gruen’s Like Water for Elephants or Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, then you’ll welcome this eerily gripping, poignant and deeply moving debut novel ranked alongside Pulitzer greats William Styron and Horton Foote.

253 pages, ebook

First published December 28, 2010

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About the author

Laine Cunningham

95 books100 followers
Laine Cunningham is a novelist and a three-time recipient of The Hackney Award. The Family Made of Dust, set in the Australian Outback, considers how Indigenous lives thrive despite oppression. Reparation is a contemporary novel of the American Great Plains. She is the senior editor and publisher of Sunspot Literary Journal, a multinational publication seeking to change the world.

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Displaying 1 - 9 of 9 reviews
Profile Image for Mark Noce.
Author 3 books306 followers
June 14, 2016
Message Stick, now known as, The Family Made of Dust gives us an up close and personal view of the Australian outback while following a thrilling investigation to its conclusion. The Family Made of Dust also showcases fascinating aspects of indigenous Australian culture trying to continue to exist amidst the struggles and hardships of the modern world. I found Gabe’s introspective and physical journey mirrored in a particularly masterful way throughout the narrative. I also loved learning about the concept of song lines as well, a truly unique aspect of native Australian folklore. The Family Made of Dust is a must read for anyone who like a good story mixed in with real life facts about the Australian Outback.
Profile Image for Aaron Boxley.
Author 1 book3 followers
November 1, 2013
One of the best books I've read in a very long time... A real treat... Laine Cunningham pulls you in, wraps you in a cocoon and pulls you through an enchanting, wonderful tale. I will definitely be reading more of her work and will gladly say she has moved into one of my most liked authors... Pick this book up and get ready for a sensational adventure across Australia's rugged terrain.

I received this book as a winner of a Goodreads giveaway... truly amazing read
Profile Image for Maureen Tumenas.
623 reviews8 followers
August 9, 2013
A well written novel, set in the Australian outback. Although advertised as a suspense filled novel- I found it not a novel of suspense, but rather an excellent look at the roles blacks, whites, aborigines, play in the country. I learned a lot about how the various peoples of Australia have interacted over the years and gained some appreciation for the native traditions.

I received a copy of Message Stick through a Goodreads giveaway.
Profile Image for Jennifer (JC-S).
2,964 reviews202 followers
July 22, 2015
‘Invisibility was an art. Of the different veils a man could use, tricking the eye was easy.’

When Ian McCabe goes missing in outback Australia, his friend Gabriel (Gabe) Branch leaves coastal Queensland to search for him. Ian is a ‘roo shooter, a peripatetic lifestyle which makes it difficult to pin down when he went missing. This will be a difficult journey for Gabe. Identifiably Aboriginal, removed from his parents as a child, the world of his ancestors is alien to him.

‘The only thing that seems to hold any promise is an artifact Ian mailed the week he disappeared.’

In Alice Springs, Gabe discovers that the artifact is a message stick. He’s told that it is something to do with death, but he needs to find someone from the right tribe to read it. Gabe’s journey through the outback draws the attention of Dana Pukatja, a Pitjantjatjara medicine man who does not want Gabe to find the truth.

This is an interesting and at times convoluted tale. Gabe needs to become more aware of his own Aboriginal past and culture. He needs this awareness in order to understand both the world in which he finds himself, and what happened to Ian. The journey is difficult, both physically and emotionally. The supernatural also has a large role. Gabe encounters people who help him, and those who discriminate against him. Where does Gabe belong? And what about Dana Pukatja: can Gabe find the truth despite his best efforts?

‘White men, with their metal and machines and their mania for conquest, never understood Aborigines or their land.’

The vastness of the Australian outback is vividly depicted in this novel: a remote place which can be very unforgiving of those who enter it. The outback is both backdrop to the story and a character within it. In addition to the search for Ian, and Gabe’s search for himself, Ms Cunningham also raises a number of the social issues that continue to bedevil Australia as a consequence of the treatment of the Indigenous Peoples.

Did I enjoy this novel? Not entirely. But that is mostly my discomfort with the story presented rather than the way it is written. This is a novel which invites you to consider the background as well as the events.

Note: I was offered, and accepted, an electronic copy of this novel for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
Profile Image for Armand Daigle.
Author 1 book2 followers
March 5, 2014
This level of detail and feeling of the Outback could only come from someone who was deeply immersed in it. Laine Cunningham was for six months and when that happens you get a different kind of richness in story and image that outlasts and peeks above the standard novel. This account of one man’s search for another, forgotten roots, and experiences with the unknown, is timely, in that the conditions are ripe for it to unfold all around this globe. That said, the author’s ability to juxtapose normally unrelated things is beautiful, and the way she jumps from storyline to storyline while changing the style of narration depending on the character at hand is nimble and smooth. The different points of view—many even in the same scene—serve to explore the details in interactions, often using subtle twists that are hard to overlook, with completely different findings and lessons based on who’s eyes are looking. The author also does wonders in making the inanimate dance.

Cunningham keeps excellent pace and is steady throughout most of the book, touching on and quickly leaving the smaller elements but making sure to bask in those that truly develop the story. One second you’ll be picturing the road or spur humming by the vehicle and the next you’ll time travel to swatting birds off the wreckage. She sneaks you into action, keeping it all highly gripping. It’s not until Skin Name—225 pages into the book—that a slight dip in style and economy is noticed, but even so it remains plenty engaging.

Highlights would be: accurate locations and directions and following the battle from point to point, learning the nuances and prevalence of areas still blanketed by racism, the inner workings of the shaman’s actions opposite those who do not believe, and the reality that money and the system that comes with it still have power over those who live by the land. Cunningham has shaped a magnificent portrait in her debut and offers excitement for the works that follow.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
16 reviews1 follower
July 30, 2013
Really Good. I enjoyed her writing style.
376 reviews12 followers
March 6, 2017
I received The Message Stick free through Goodreads, and I am so grateful for that! This book is packed with cultural history of Australia...so much that I never knew. I kept going back to re-read passages, afraid that I might miss something! This is a story that kept me reading into the night.
Profile Image for Lauri.
863 reviews9 followers
September 1, 2023
"His skin mother. The woman who had dreamed his spirit totem, whose color he wore on his hands and face and chest and thighs. If he had stayed with her, he might have learned of Dreaming and of songs. In the life forced upon him, a millimeter of difference had marked the boundaries of isn’t and can’t.... But when a teacher asked him to bring in a painting by “his people” for their art lesson, the patina of words and concepts crumbled like a candied shell. He was utterly vulnerable to the isn’t because he profoundly lacked the is."

Gabe is one of the "Stolen Ones" - an aborigine who was taken from his family as a very young child to be educated and abused in the Catholic residential schools, never to see his family again, but instead to be adopted by a white family. This is the story of his journey to find out what happened to a friend who went missing in the outback, and to also find the beginning of a trail to his roots. It's a very violent story with bad people doing awful things. The worst was a shaman who has betrayed his own people and is now trying his best to kill Gabe. It's a very sad and suspenseful, but moving story. I won't soon forget this one.
March 14, 2020
Took me awhile to figure out which character was which. Kept reading because the story line was interesting.
Displaying 1 - 9 of 9 reviews

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