Emu Runner is a story about a nine-year-old Indigenous girl, Gem Daniels, who lives in a remote Australian town. As she copes with her mother’s unexpected death, Gem finds solace in the company of a wild emu, unwittingly connecting with her mother’s traditional totem animal.
Gem’s obsessive attachment to the emu leads her down a troubled path as she feeds it her school lunches and begins to steal extra food for it. As she spends more and more time with the emu, Gem skips school, attracting the attention of a new social worker in town, Heidi, who is convinced Gem’s family is failing to look after her.
In nature the male emu takes on the role of rearing the chicks. With the death of his wife, Gem’s father Jay Jay is left to raise Gem, her 15-year-old sister Valerie and her 17-year-old brother Ecka on his own. While Jay Jay’s commitment to his family doesn’t waver, the pressures to make ends meet and hold the family together are exacerbated by the antics of his older children and Gem’s truancy and stealing.
Emu Runner is as much Jay Jay Daniels’ story as it is Gem’s. Not only does Jay Jay face prejudices from the white community in the town, he also has to prove himself to his Indigenous family and friends, who have little confidence in his ability as a sole parent. Jay Jay is driven by a dogged determination as he strives to nurture and protect his children.
The story reaches its dramatic climax with Heidi making the decision to remove Gem from her father’s care, laying bare her limited understanding of the real motivations behind Gem’s truancy and stealing.
In the end, it is Heidi who learns from Gem and is confronted by her own lack of preparation for a job which has responsibilities not covered by her tertiary qualifications or her idealism.
Emu Runner is a story about respecting difference. It explores the underlying racial tensions in regional Australia and the importance of traditional customs in modern Indigenous culture.