Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile is a tight multi-generational saga set in the fictional town of Darnmoor over the last decades of the twentieth century. It tells the story of the people of the Campgrounds, who are ostracised, exploited and abused by the white townspeople. Between the Campgrounds and the town proper, with its ironically named Grace and Hope Streets, is the tip, which was created by knocking down “strangely scratched gums” on the old bora grounds. The road to the tip, and on to the Campgrounds, is Old Black Road. The stage is set …
“trespassers on their own country”
The story is told in three parts which span three generations of the Billymil family – Celie, her daughter Mili, and Mili’s eldest son Paddy. Celie’s part starts, however, with her mother, Margaret. Margaret not only runs the town hospital’s laundry, but also undertakes the major load of nursing the hospital’s First Nations patients. They are housed on “the back verandah” and are mostly ignored by the hospital’s medical staff. In this way, very early in the novel, we get the picture loud and clear about how the town’s Indigenous people are treated. The racism, the omniscient narrator tells us, is “hidden yet glaring. It’s the Darnmoor way”.
But there is a parallel story going on here, too, that of the spirits and ancestors, the “knowledge keepers”, who reside among the stars. They “wait for their loved ones to arrive” but they also introduce an important idea underlying this story – the “connectedness” of “all living or once lived things”. This connection is symbolised in the novel by threads and ropes that join sky and earth through birds and trees to the roots underground. I loved that Simpson shared this, that she trusted her readers to respect a worldview that’s foreign to many of us.
Intrinsic to this connectedness, of course, is the land. Some of the book’s most lyrical writing comes from descriptions of the country – rivers, trees, birds – in which it is set. This country is the freshwater plains of northwest New South Wales, the traditional lands of Simpson’s Yuwaalaraay heritage. In her novel its main feature is the Mangamanga River, “known by some as the wide-bodied, liquid boss of the plains.” It is to this river that Mili and/or members of her family go to refresh their spirits, but the men of Darnmoor want to control it, and protect themselves, by building a levee between the town and the Campgrounds.
Essentially, then, Song of the crocodile is the story of people who are made to feel “trespassers in their own land”. But, it’s also the story of strong, resilient women who forge a community on the Campgrounds. With guts and confidence, Celie turns her mother’s laundry skills into a business called the Blue Shed, providing work for herself and the other women. These women are a joy to read about, but they and their families are barely tolerated by the town, which ensures they know their place. When Mili’s bright young friend Trilpa wins a mathematics prize she is disqualified on trumped-up grounds, and when Mili, herself, applies for permission – permission, would you believe – to continue school past the age of 15, she too is brought down, by Mayor Mick Murphy, in the worst way.
“threads of broken lore”
Needless to say, it’s a difficult story. Too many people, people we’ve come to love, “pass” too young. As the oppression of those left behind builds, creating “hopelessness and grief”, the beast – Garriya, our titular crocodile – starts to stir. Regular hints of his rumbling imbue the novel with a sense of foreboding.
The crocodile is apparently a creator being in Yuwaalaraay country, but his evocation in this novel, as Garriya, is unleashed by the evil that has been visited upon the Campground people, evil that has broken the country’s lore. We feel him coming, and Mili’s alienated son Paddy is the conduit. Desperate to counteract this, spirit songman Jakybird wants to reconnect the “threads of broken lore”. He prepares his spirit “choir” for one last, powerful song, Garriya’s cycle. The climax is shocking, but the ending is cheekily open.
All this sounds grim, but I didn’t find it hopeless. There is delightful warmth and humour in the interactions between the Campground women, and there is humour and hope in the spirit world. Through these, Simpson gives us a complex story of oppression and survival. For all the misery suffered by the Billymils and their community, there is hope in their resilience, in their ongoing connection to country, and in their determination to keep passing on culture. Early in the novel, laundry worker Joyce addresses the parcels for delivery, using drawings that convey “a belonging, a knowledge, a truth of the place on which they walked and worked”:
In most cases the recipients failed to notice the mark, tearing the paper off and crushing it into a ball. It didn’t matter that eventually it was taken to the tip and returned to the earth. What mattered were the boys on the bikes that delivered them, that read the symbols then read the land. The drawings and the washing restored old journeys, countrymen walking on places they knew.
Simpson also, as First Nations writers are increasingly doing, uses Yuwaalaraay language throughout. She doesn’t directly translate it and there is no glossary. This bothered some of my reading group, while others of us felt the meaning was always clear – or clear enough. Here, for example, is Margaret in Chapter 1:
“Yaama. Dhii ngaya gaagilanha. Who wants a cuppa?” Margaret pushed open the door to the hospital’s back verandah, its hingers squealing as she entered. “How are we all today?”
Song of the crocodile was my reading group’s July book, and it resulted in one of our liveliest discussions this year, as we defended our diverse responses to its ideas, style, characters and tone.
For me it was an absorbing read. It is uncompromising in its portrayal of the insidious racism that First Nations Australians confront and the devastating impact of that on the spirit, but it also shows resilience in the face of that, and it affirms that culture is strong. That has to be a positive thing?
For Lisa’s and other blog reviews, check her ILW Fiction Reading List.
Song of the crocodile
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2020