Review of Keren Masters, No Turning Back, Ark House Press, c. 2022

This is the life story of Bruce and Pearl Smoker, written by their daughter Keren Masters. As a newly married couple, at the age of 23, they went to Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley in 1958, to work as missionaries. No matter how busy they were with many demands and circumstances at the time, their core business and passion was always to bring the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ to aboriginal people in that area.

Fitzroy Crossing at the time was a small settlement with a pub, beyond the effective reach and understanding of most government services. Bruce’s position as mission manager was under the authority  of UAM (United Aborigines Mission) and various arms of government welfare at the time. Conditions were very spartan in a remote, harsh environment, with inadequate resources and poor support. Nevertheless, the concern of the Smokers always seemed to be for those they were serving, rather than the cost to themselves.

They played a big part in getting education started there, including hostel accommodation, mostly given in the form of little more than a designated plot. Government assistance was fairly miserly and slow.

The book is very matter of fact, just telling what happened. The author tells much of her story by getting locals to tell their story verbatim. The tone of the book remains positive throughout, in spite of there being much to complain about.

The book gives an interesting insight into the removal of aboriginal people off the stations (often their traditional lands) with no thought about where they might go – or what to do about housing, food, employment, education. Some were just dumped with a few hours notice by the truckload in the town, with no one but the Mission to feed or house them.

Assimilation policy at the time aimed to civilize the aborigines by helping them to become white fellas – holding down a job (of their own finding), cutting themselves off from all but their immediate family and traditions, and being allowed to drink alcohol.

They fell out with the publican because their store provided what the people needed at a reasonable price, unlike the overpriced pub. Some station owners resented aboriginal education because it might give  employment opportunities beyond only working for them. The missionaries’ belief in the humanity and equality of all people before God was not commonplace.

Pearl had done book keeping, while Bruce was a qualified mechanic. Pearl became a teacher when the need arose, among other challenges. Bruce by necessity became a Jack of All trades – administrator, builder, architect, fixer, plane refueler, negotiator, counsellor, pastor, teacher etc.

Their love, respect and identification with aboriginal people was enormous, but attested to by implication  rather than by  claim. When Keren was sent to boarding school in Perth at age 12, she was only able to understand and speak Kriol . She credits aboriginal Christians for helping mature her in the faith.

The Smokers had five of their own children, and several aboriginal children for various periods as the need arose. They were obviously considered family – and still  are, but were returned to their birth relatives when circumstances improved.

They achieved their aim of establishing a local autonomous indigenous  Church with its own pastor and trained leaders. It was a joy to them to realise that they had worked themselves into being redundant. In spite of being extremely busy, they remained people of vision who stayed true to their calling of bringing the good news of Jesus.

Keren’s first husband, an aboriginal, studied social work at university, but was killed in a car accident on the way home from work.  Her second husband is a doctor and pastor’s son.

Wherever the Smokers went, and no matter what was going on, Bruce always visited the camps at night, spending time teaching the Bible, counselling, listening and talking with people, training them and growing them in the faith.

Pearl had undiagnosed severe headaches and other symptoms for many years, but new eyes eventually diagnosed a tumour the size of an orange behind her ear.

They were moved around against their better judgment at times by distant  committees who lacked appreciation of relationships. They also served at Halls Creek and in Perth.

The story is told of a newly arrived young male missionary who clashed fairly comprehensively with a lady missionary, some years his senior. A year or so later they were engaged to be married!

The book is enhanced by many photos of the people they worked with, with more available online.

The book could also be called “Faithful servants of a faithful God” – an inspiring read.

– Edwin Nash