John M. Oskison, The singing bird (#Review)

From Zitkala-Ša’s 1901-published “The soft-hearted Sioux”, Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers jumps a quarter of a century to 1925, and John M. Oskison’s “The singing bird”.

John M. Oskison

Again, anthology editor Bob Blaisdell provides a brief intro to the author, but it’s Wikipedia that is able to provide more detail. John M(ilton) Oskison (1874-1937) was, like our two previous authors, of mixed parentage. He was born in Cherokee Nation to an English father and part-Cherokee mother. He went to Stanford University (where my friend who gave me the anthology went, in fact!) and was president of the Stanford Literary Society. Wikipedia says he was Stanford’s first Native American graduate. He apparently went to Harvard for graduate school but he left to become a professional writer after he won a short story competition.

By his death he had published novels, short stories and many pieces of journalism. A novel titled The singing bird was found in his papers in 2007 and subsequently published. Timothy Powell, writing about this novel, suggests it is “quite possibly the first historical novel written by a Cherokee”, and argues that it offers “an interpretation of indigenous history that stresses survival and empowerment over removal and despair”. It is set in the 1840s-50s, after the Cherokees had been removed to Indian Territory, and in it, Powell says, Oskison ‘skilfully blends fiction and reality, thoughtfully demonstrating how literature can rewrite the master narrative of “history” and bring to life moments in the past that remain outside the scope of the written records maintained by the dominant white society’. This sounds like the sort of historical fiction that is starting to appear in Australia, like Julie Janson’s Benevolence (my review) and Anita Heiss’s Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (my review), novels that correct the colonial historical perspective that has been prevailed for too long. Oskison was, like our previous two authors, an activist.

Blaisdell focuses more on the story. He describes it as an “exciting, densely plotted story” but suggests the reader needs to “hold tight” because it is “dotted with odd, struggling phrasings that make it seem as if Oskison were translating it”. The title, he explains, refers to “cuckolding”, with “singing bird” being a term used by “full-bloods” for a “deceiving wife”. He suggests that ‘the issue of “full-bloods” versus half-breeds” is a messier theme’.

“The singing bird”

Powell says that it is not known when Oskison started writing his novel The singing bird. However, he does mention that this story was published in 1925 and wonders whether Oskison began to formulate the novel around this time. From Powell’s description of the novel, the characters names are different, it has a multilayered narrative structure unlike the story, and the narrative is very different, so let’s leave the novel there.

Wikipedia says of Oskison that “his fiction focused on the culture clash that mixed-bloods like himself faced”. “The singing bird” is interesting in this regard because, as Blaisdell suggests, a significant issue in the story concerns “full-bloods and half-breeds”. The story opens with Big Jim (Jim Blind-Wolfe) sending his wife Jennie away because it is time for the men to talk. They make up “the inner, unofficial council of the Kee-too-wah* organisation” and they are “self-charged with the duty of carrying out the ancient command to maintain amongst the Cherokees the full-blood inheritance of race purity and race ideals”.

This “council” is concerned about the “alarming late growth of outlawry in the tribe, an increase in crime due to idleness, drink and certain disturbing white men who had established themselves in the hills”. As they discuss this serious business, Oskison writes that “paradoxically … They would pass a jug of honest moonshine – but they would drink from it discreetly, lightly, as full blood gentleman should!” Nice touch!

Meanwhile, the ousted wife Jennie, takes herself to the “out cabin” with its “inviting pine-log room”. Here she awaits, we are told, Lovely Daniel who has already been introduced to us by the men, as their “wild half-breed neighbour”. Jennie, though, is expecting to “know shivery terror, the illicit thrill of the singing bird”. And so in the first two pages, the story is set up: Big Jim has sent his wife to the out cabin so that his little council can talk men’s business about half-breeds and white men, and that wife is waiting for one of those half-breeds to visit her in the cabin. Simple story of a dominating husband and unfaithful wife? Sounds it, but all is not as it seems. Oskison unfolds the plot well. We flash back to how Jennie and Lovely Daniel had come to know each other (including the development of his “wonderful plan, a credit to his half-breed shrewdness, if not to his name”), and to how enmity had developed between Big Jim and Lovely Daniel, before returning to the main narrative. There is a revenge theme to the story, one involving Lovely Daniel wishing to avenge having nearly been killed by Big Jim after a political altercation that had turned violent.

So if it’s not a simple unfaithful wife story, what is it? Well, it’s political. There is tension between the full-blood Kee-too-wahs and the half-breeds over whites, and the issue of leasing land to them. The full-bloods (through Big Jim) see leasing land as the thin end of the wedge, while the half-breeds (through Lovely Daniel) see the white man coming as inevitable anyhow. Big Jim, then, represents the Cherokees’ fight for their land, their fight “against “race deterioration and the decay of morale in the long years of contact with the White in Georgia and Tennessee”, while Daniel is the bad, wild man. As Blaisdell says, the theme of “full-bloods” versus half-breeds” is messy, particularly given Oskison was himself of mixed-descent. Perhaps we are intended to see this story – this conflict – more in terms of symbolism than realism, as a story about the primacy of protecting land and culture. (This suggests it’s an anti-assimilation story, though I believe there’s much discussion about Oskison’s attitude to assimilation.)

I found the writing a bit heavy-handed at times, but it also has an interesting tone. There is a sense in Oskison’s language, for example, that the full-blood Kee-too-wah men are not the whole answer either (as they sit “like remote, secret gods, in judgment on the conduct of a community”). And, although Jennie takes significant agency in the story, she is still expected, when it’s all over, to make breakfast for the men!

“The singing bird” is an intriguing story. It’s one that seems to raise as many questions as it answers, particularly when seen within the context of Oskison himself, of his oeuvre, and of course of his times – times I know little about.

* See Wikipedia.

John M. Oskison
“The singing bird” (orig. pub. Sunset Magazine, March 1925)
in Bob Blaisdell (ed.), Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers
Garden City: Dover Publications, 2014
pp. 25-39
ISBN: 9780486490953

Zitkala-Sa, The soft-hearted Sioux (#Review)

Zitkala-Ša’s “The soft-hearted Sioux” is the second story in the anthology, Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers, sent to me by my American friend. I posted on the first one, Pauline Johnson’s “A red girl’s reasoning”, a couple of weeks ago.


As he does for all the stories, anthology editor Bob Blaisdell provides a brief intro to Zitkala-Ša and her story. Also known by her married name, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, Zitkala-Ša (1876-1938) was born at the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. She was educated at a Quaker missionary school and then, because she wanted to be more than the presumed-for-girls job of housekeeper, she went to the Quaker-run liberal arts school, Earlham College. She went on the teach at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. As with Johnson, Wikipedia fleshes out the details. It tells us that she hated being stripped of her culture at the Quaker missionary school, that she learnt piano and violin there, and that when she graduated from it in June 1895, “she gave a speech on the inequality of women’s rights”.

Wikipedia chronicles her life well, so do read it if you are interested. I’ll just add here that, it introduces her work with: “She wrote several works chronicling her struggles with cultural identity, and the pull between the majority culture in which she was educated, and the Dakota culture into which she was born and raised. Her later books were among the first works to bring traditional Native American stories to a widespread white English-speaking readership”. And it concludes that her “legacy lives on as one of the most influential Native American activists of the 20th century”.

Regarding “The soft-hearted Sioux”, Blaisdell explains that “it is narrated by a young Christianised man who returns to his Sioux reservation as a missionary” at which time his father says to him that “your soft heart has unfitted you for everything”. In this story, in other words, Zitkala-Ša exposes some of the iniquities of colonialism.

“The soft-hearted Sioux”

According to Wikipedia, Zitkala-Ša had a fruitful writing career, with two major periods, the first being 1900 to 1904, during which our story was published. In this period, she published legends from Native American culture – which she apparently started collecting while she was at Earlham – and autobiographical narratives. “The soft-hearted Sioux” has an autobiographical element, I guess. The protagonist is male, and I don’t believe she returned from college a missionary, but she did go to a Christian school. Other stories published in this time were clearly more autobiographical: “An Indian teacher among Indians”, “Impressions of an Indian childhood”, and “School days of an Indian girl” (all in 1900).

The story is told first person. At the opening, our narrator is in his “sixteenth year” and is sitting in the family’s teepee with his parents on either side of him, and his maternal grandmother in front. The grandmother is smoking a “red stone pipe” and it is passed around as they provide him with advice. It is time for him to find a woman, to learn to hunt and bring home meat, to become a warrior. We then jump nine years. He had not, he tells us, grown up to be “the warrior huntsman, and husband” expected of him. Instead, the mission school had taught him that killing was wrong. For “nine winters” he had “hunted for the soft heart of Christ, and prayed for the huntsman who chased the buffalo on the plains.” In the tenth year, he is sent back to his tribe

to preach Christianity to them with the white man’s Bible in my hand and a white man’s tender heart in my breast.

He no longer wears the buckskin clothes and blanket on his shoulders as he does at the opening. Now, “wearing a foreigner’s dress”, he walks “a stranger” into his father’s village.

The story then is about the impact and implications of assimilation, the dislocation it causes for both individuals and society. Our young man, thoroughly inculcated with Christian thought, arrives home to find his father ill, and being tended by the “medicine-man … the sorcerer of the plains”. He is disturbed about his father’s “unsaved soul” and tries to banish the “sorcerer”. So begins his life as a missionary. He knows it will be hard, but is confident he will succeed. I’ll leave the story there, as you can read it online (link below) but, knowing who is writing this story and why, you won’t be surprised to discover that he doesn’t succeed. The story is sentimentally told, in the style of the time, but its subject-matter is strong and emotive. Zitkala-Ša uses the motifs of the opposing Native American and Christian cultures well – the dress and customs, the knife of the brave versus the soft heart of the Christian, with softness here, equating less with gentleness than with weakness – to make her points.

Zitkala-Ša, herself, of course, was Christian-educated like her protagonist, but she went on to use the tools of that education to fight for the rights of First Nations people. She did that in various ways, including through politically activism. She was involved with the Society of American Indians (SAI) which, says Wikipedia,”was dedicated to preserving the Native American way of life while lobbying for the right to full American citizenship” and went on to found, with her husband, the National Council of American Indians. She also actively promoted women’s rights, through a grassroots organisation for women, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.

But, an important part of her activism was through her writing. By publishing stories like “The soft-hearted Sioux” in majority-culture journals, like Harper’s Monthly and Atlantic Monthly, she hoped, I believe, to educate that culture in its impact on her people. The story is still worth reading today. Its style is dated, lacking some of the subtlety and nuance we are used to, but it nonetheless conveys truths that still stand and it provides us with a window on how long this fight has been going on. I’m loving being introduced to new-to-me writers and activists, like Pauline Johnson and Zitkala-Ša, through this book. They are women well worth knowing about.

“The soft-hearted Sioux” (orig. pub. Harper’s Monthly, March 1901)
in Bob Blaisdell (ed.), Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers
Garden City: Dover Publications, 2014
pp. 17-24
ISBN: 9780486490953
Available online at upenn

Monday musings on Australian literature: Introducing Rachel Henning

If you are an Aussie who was sentient in the 1950s and/or 60s, you have probably heard of Rachel Henning. If not, she may be new to you, though she does have something of a classic status in Australia. Let me explain.

Rachel Henning (1826-1914) was an Englishwoman who came to Australia in 1854 with her sister Amy, following her brother Biddulph and another sister Annie who had come previously for Biddulph’s health. She did not enjoy the life: she was homesick, she disliked bush life “extremely”, and hated the hot climate. She wrote on 29 March 1855 of being

tired of the perpetual glare of sunshine. Fine days here bring me no pleasure as they do in England: they are too hot and too numerous, and besides, you cannot enjoy them by taking nice walks–there are no walks to take.

So, she returned to England in 1856. However, in 1861, back she came to Australia, determined to be more positive, and found it much more to her liking. It was well into autumn when she landed on this second trip, which helped. After spending a few days in Melbourne, she got a steamer up to Sydney arriving there in mid-May. She writes in her first letter after arrival:

The next morning I got up early, and a most lovely Australian morning it was, the sun shining and everything looking bright and beautiful.

I do not know how to give you any idea of the beauty of Sydney Harbour. I certainly underrated the Australian scenery, but, then, it is winter now; I should tell a different story in the heat and dust of summer. (Letter to sister Etta, May 15, 1861)

After spending a little time in New South Wales, she joined her Australian family in the Bowen region of Queensland where Biddulph had taken up a property. From there she lived in several parts of eastern Australia, before spending the end of her life in Sydney.

Penguin ed. 1969

Rachel Henning died in 1914, but her letters, which were never intended for publication, were not published until The Bulletin serialised them over 1951 and 1952. This was followed by publication as a book in 1954, illustrated by none other than Norman Lindsay, and edited by David Adams. Here is where it gets interesting because, as Bill writes (and as Judy Stove told my JASACT group), Adams severely edited them (reminding us of how Austen’s sister Cassandra “curated” Austen’s life by destroying so many of her letters). Bill reports that Adams reduced the original 179 letters down to 90. Not only did he remove repetitive salutations etc, but he also deleted references to “women’s problems” (which would be so interesting now) plus her most scathing comments about her fellows and most of her complaints about ‘colonials’. None of this editing was acknowledged at the time, and was only exposed decades later.

I’m not sure, and nor was Judy Stove, about the current state of the original manuscripts – or whether there are plans to release a more complete edition of the essays. However, Stove said that Norman Lindsay apparently liked the letters, and, I believe, likened them to Jane Austen’s letters which, unlike many male readers, he also liked.

Now, at the beginning I indicated that Henning’s letters were very popular in the 1950s and 60s, but implied that, if you weren’t sentient then, you may not have heard of her. This is because she fell out of favour, mainly, said Judy Stove, due to her “snobbish” attitudes, including to First Nations Australians. These attitudes changed a little over the time, with her expressing some humanity towards the original inhabitants. Fundamentally, though, it appears, as Bill cites cacademic Anne Allingham saying, that Henning “became party to the pastoralist’s pact to maintain silence on frontier conflict, the hope being that silence would imply that it simply did not exist.” In the letters, she clearly distinguishes between the “wild blacks” and the “boys” who worked on the station. She does seem aware that the term “boys” is not really right, but still, she accepts the status quo:

He [Biddulph] takes with him Alick, one of the blackboys–they are always called “boys”, though the said Alick must be thirty-five at least. People who are going for a long journey almost always take a blackboy with them. They are most useful servants in the bush, get up the horses in the morning, light fires at night, and know by a sort of instinct if there are any wild blacks lurking in the neighbourhood of their camp. They are very faithful, too. I never heard of an instance of a traveller being murdered or robbed by his own blackboy. (Letter to Mr Boyce, 23 March 1864)

Regardless (or perhaps because) of these attitudes – which were not uncommon in her time – Henning offers valuable insight into colonial Australia. Caldwell puts in this way, at the end of her ADB entry:

Her letters read like a novel with ‘darling’ Biddulph the hero, and give an invaluable picture of colonial life; with vivid descriptions and shrewd, if not always charitable, observations on people, they have both charm and humour.

Read more …

You can read the full text of her letters at Project Gutenberg Australia.

And here are some places where you can read more about her:

Have you read The letters of Rachel Henning? And if so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Alison Croggon, Monsters (#BookReview)

Alison Croggon’s Monsters: A reckoning is a demanding but exhilarating read, demanding because it expresses some tough feelings, and exhilarating because of the mind behind it, the connections it makes and the questions it asks. Coincidentally, it has some synchronicities with my recent read, Sarah Krasnostein’s The believer. Both talk about “uncertainty”, and both conclude by talking about “love”, but beyond these two ideas are very different books.

Monsters is categorised on its back-cover as narrative nonfiction/memoir. However, it could also be described as an essay collection, albeit a linked-essay collection, because each individually-titled chapter seems to take up an issue – or return to an earlier issue – and riff on it, though riff is too frivolous a word for what Croggon does.

The book has an interesting trigger and an even more interesting trajectory. The trigger is the final breakdown in what had been a very difficult relationship with her sister. The trajectory is to explore this through the lens of colonialism, the “colonial project”. It’s audacious, really, and yet it makes a lot of sense. It certainly adopts the idea that the personal is the political with a vice-grip that doesn’t let go.

I’ll start with the memoir part. Threading through the essays are references to her white middle-class family. She starts, in the first two chapters – “The curse” and “Ancestors” – with a quick expose of the family tree. It goes back to the 1100s, but she focuses mostly on the 19th century’s Great Uncle Bee who was heavily implicated in “the colonial project”. Her thesis is that “colonisation is, necessarily, a process of traumatisation for everyone who is born in the system”. Croggon does not wish to diminish its greatest impact on the colonised but her point is that the “system” damages everyone. She argues, albeit using “a small, wonky, uncertain line”, that the attitudes and values inherent in the system can (even, perhaps, must) poison personal relationships. She writes, two-thirds through the book:

I was born as part of a monstrous structure – the grotesque, hideous, ugly, ghastly, gruesome, horrible – relations of power that constituted colonial Britain. A structure that shaped me, that shapes the very language that I speak and use and love. I am the daughter of an empire declared itself the natural order of the world.

The memoir part, the family part, particularly regarding her sister, is tough and hard – and I admit that I would not want to be her sister reading this book. However, although Croggon has the pen in her hand, so of course we feel her pain at “the fracture”, she does not absolve herself of her role. Indeed, at the end – and she means personally and politically, I believe – she talks of “attempting to understand my own complicities”.

“Are we irrevocably broken by our histories?”

Here is where the essay aspect of this intriguing work illuminates, because, in different but sometimes overlapping essays/chapters, she explores issues like patriarchy, whiteness, feminism, primarily as they play out through “the colonial project”. Take, for example, her analysis of patriarchy and its impact on the relationship between women: “how it distorts and destroys relationships between women: how it creates this deadly competition…” Competiton being, of course, fundamental to colonialism.

Now, I wanted to reject this because I do not feel in competition with women – I have always loved the sisterhood – but, I can’t ignore the overarching point she is making, one that’s bigger than my little world. She continues:

For centuries, our foundational cultural texts have said, over and over again, that women are without worth.

I could easily (but naively) dispute this by pointing to my life, but I have to admit to my privilege and, whether conscious or not, to the entitlement under which I live. I am therefore willing to accept Croggon’s thesis regarding colonialism – and its impact on the personal as well as the political:

We are both [she and her sister] the product of a machine that has spent centuries concealing its violence, that pours countless resources into disguising its greed for resources and power as an exercise in human progress.

This machine is fed, as Croggon sees it, by a faith in binaries: “good/bad, men/women, white/black, right/wrong, guilty/innocent”. These binaries “profoundly infected” her relationship with her sister but, as she explores through her essays, they also underpin the colonial view of the world that permeates so much of our thinking and behaviour still today. We have not, as we know, shaken off the bonds of our colonial past, and if there’s one thing Croggon rams home, with erudition and sophistication, it’s how deeply ingrained colonial thinking is in everything we do. To put it simply, colonialist cultures are racist, sexist, hierarchical, and rely on “conquest, erasure, entitlement” to survive.

One of my favourite, one of the most clarifying essays/chapters, is “The whiteness”. In one chapter she pulls apart denotation, connotation, implication, and more. She says that “whiteness isn’t really about skin colour. Like blackness, it’s a category”. She writes that “the savagery of whiteness, its pettiness, its hypocrisy, its dishonesty, its murderousness: these are hard things to understand about oneself.” She writes of the whiteness that is able to argue its own victimhood. And, she admits to discomfort with prodding the traumas of her white family in the face of Black anguish.

It is uncomfortable being white today, with all our privileges – and it is even more uncomfortable that such a weak word as “uncomfortable” probably adequately describes our feelings and uncertainties.

You can probably see by now that this is not a simple read. It’s certainly not one you can dip into and read an “essay” at random, because the argument is entwined through memoir. It’s fragmented, and draws on a seemingly random group of thinkers and writers against which she bounces her own ideas. It requires concentration to follow the links and connections, the slipping back-and-forth between the personal and the political, but, as I flip through the book to write this post, what I see are a lot of “Yes” marks in the margin.

Some of these “yeses” relate to sharing some experiences, such as a childhood love of reading, or to seeing the world similarly, but others relate to the questions she leaves us with, because there are no answers here.

Towards the end comes the admission that “I can’t see what I can’t see”. Of course! But this is also the cry of someone who wants to see more. Also near the end, she returns to her relationship with her sister, and the role of patriarchal norms and colonialism’s assumptions in its collapse. She says “I can’t see how it can be undone”. This is the biggest – and, to be honest, most confronting – question Croggon leaves us with. Can it be done? Can we unlearn colonialism’s cruel premises and heritage, so that we can undo what we have done?

Challenge logo

Alison Croggon
Monsters: A reckoning
Melbourne: Scribe, 2021
ISBN: 9781925713398

(Review copy courtesy Scribe)

Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwick, On a barbarous coast (“BookReview)

Craig Cormick is a Canberra-based writer whom I’ve seen at various literary events around town, but not read until now, so I was especially glad when Allen & Unwin sent me this book to review. Titled On a barbarous coast, it was written collaboratively with Harold Ludwick, “a Bulgun Warra man whose traditional lands lie west of Cooktown”.

On a barbarous coast offers something a bit different for reviewers. Besides its collaborative nature, there’s its form or genre, which is that sub-genre of historical fiction called alternate (or alternative) history. In this case, it involves looking at a period of Australian history and asking “what if things had happened differently?” Those things, for Cormick and Ludwick, relate to Captain Cook’s exploration of Australia.

The story springs, then, from Captain Cook’s 1768-1771 voyage to Australia to observe the Transit of Venus. During that expedition, in late 1770, the Endeavour was seriously damaged around the Great Barrier Reef, but managed to limp on to Batavia. However, Cormick and Ludwick posit a different scenario, suggesting that the Endeavour was shipwrecked and that only a small number of the crew survived – including Cook, though he remains comatose though much of the story. The survivors make their way to land, and … the question is, as the cover states, “What if there was an alternative ending to Captain Cook’s story?” Would Australia’s history have been different, and how?

While I’ve not read many, I do quite like alternative histories. They encourage us to look at the past from different angles, which can illuminate the implications of decisions made and actions taken.

So, this is how it goes …

The story is told in two alternating first-person voices, Cormick’s being that of American Midshipman James Magra, and Ludwick’s being the young Indigenous boy, Garrgiil.

Magra chronicles the actions and fates of the shipwreck survivors, who very quickly break into two antagonistic camps, while Ludwick shares the thoughts and actions of the local Guugu Yimidhirr people. For the bulk of the narrative, the two cultures remain apart. There is quite a bit of humour in watching Garrgiil’s people trying to decide whether these strange “spirit things” are ancestors or just men. Initially, they feel they must be ancestors, but the way they stumble around, starving while “walking past food every day”, not to mention behaving incorrectly in sacred or special areas, suggests that this may not be the case.

… their presence gives our people great stories of their stupidity and clumsiness to tell around the fire at night. Like the one who stood in the river and let Gandhaar [crocodile] eat him …

Meanwhile, we watch Magra and his co-survivors bickering amongst themselves, trying to plan a solution to their predicament, and sensing the “natives” are out there but not seeing them. The stage is set for a meeting. The question is: how will it go? You will have to read the book for yourselves to find out.

So, how does it all come together?

Magra gets the lion’s share of the story, which could be seen as giving the invaders the upper-hand (yet again) in story-telling. However, I’m going to assume that this was all discussed and agreed between the two authors. Also, I think we could argue that the unequal number of physical pages doesn’t necessarily mean that the emotional impact of the two narratives is similarly unequal. Garrgiil’s voice is strong enough, and compelling enough, to be in our minds, even when he’s not centre-stage.

In the Authors’ Note at the end, Cormick says they “tried to stay as close to known history as possible, both within the known and imagined paths of the story”, which requires a bit of mind-bending but I get what they mean. They drew upon “many existing knowledges” including several journals, such as those of James Cook, Joseph Banks, Sydney Parkinson, and an anonymous journal believed to have been written by James Mario Magra, whom Cormick uses as his narrator. They also looked at the work of Indigenous and non-Indigenous historians, journalists and academics, and at historical accounts of several shipwrecked individuals who had lived with Indigenous people. Cormick notes that while their story divides easily into the two narratives, “it is not so easy to unpick how each of us influenced each other’s work”.

Ludwick adds that his aim was to pull readers into “the world of Guugu Yimidhirr language (which was first recorded in 1770 by Sydney Parkinson and Joseph Banks)”. He says that many of the practices and knowledge he describes in the book are still used by his people. He also says that he wove Dreamtime stories into his narrative to help readers understand his people’s traditional explanations of how the land became what we see today.

The end result is the sort of book I like to read, one that entertains me with its story, while also engaging my mind as I consider what the authors (plural, in this case) were trying to do, how they were trying to do it, and whether they pulled it off. It is an earnest book. Sometimes this comes a bit close to the surface when we are “told” things to make sure we get it (such as “I know the Captain controlled how the stories of our journey would be told”). This – and the strange though interesting little “magical realism” interludes where Magra talks to Gandhaar, the crocodile – creates a little unevenness in the narrative. Also, the use of parenthesis to translate the local language used by Garrgiil felt clunky. Yet, I applaud the book’s extensive use of this language. We need more of it in contemporary Australian literature. As Gandhaar tells Magra:

You create the landscape in your own words. If you don’t know the right words, you will never know the land properly.

But these are minor “picky” things. Cormick and Ludwick have attempted something significant in terms of story, intent, and process, and they pulled it off in a way that engaged me, right through to their considered ending which suggests possibilities, while being realistic about probabilities. Without irony, we could call this book “a grand endeavour”. It is certainly exciting to see such Indigenous-non-Indigenous collaborations happening in our literary sphere.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also found this book intriguing.

Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwick
On a barbarous coast
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2020
ISBN: 9781760877347

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Gay Lynch, Unsettled (#BookReview)

Coincidentally, my first review after this week’s Monday Musings on historical fiction happens to be a work of historical fiction, Gay Lynch’s cleverly titled Unsettled. Consequently, I’m going to start there, that is, talking about the form.

Well, more or less, because I should at least give you a sense of its subject. It is set primarily in South Australia’s Gambierton (later Mt Gambier) from the 1859 to 1880, with most of the action taking place in the 1860s. It’s the story of an Irish family, the Lynches, who migrated to Australia in 1848. The Lynches, as you might have guessed from the author’s name, are based on her husband’s family. Unsettled explores their story primarily through two fictional characters, Rosanna and her younger brother Skelly.

… in the spirit of the story

Which brings me to the genre. In her Acknowledgements, Lynch provides some useful insights into the book. Firstly, regarding intention, she says that she specifically wanted “to materialise Lynch girls, absent from every family anecdote and official documents, church, state and school, apart from their birth documents … the girls’ lack of documentation and therefore their invisibility reflect their early settlement status on the frontier.” The challenge, of course, in “materialising” invisible characters from the past is to make them real, and avoid anachronism. This is difficult when records are few, but I think there are enough records of frontier women in general to validate Lynch’s conception here.

Lynch also addresses where she has changed Lynch family “facts”, such as their and their employers’ names. She also says that her two main characters, Rosanna and Skelly, “exist only in [her] imagination”, but “her lived experience as Lynch wife and mother, verifiable historical events, and historical Lynch antecedents” offered her “the connective tissue” needed for their fictional lives.

She goes on to say that “in the spirit of historical fiction” she has kept close to official records so that the characters drawn from life are as “true” as she can make them, but that “in the spirit of story, some events may not be verifiable”. That, of course, is historical fiction; it’s about fleshing out lives and times with story, where the facts are not known or are minimal.

Finally, she addresses her inclusion of the local Boandik people, an issue we often discuss here. She writes that they “tell their own South-East story – they still live on that once dangerous frontier, on land they never ceded – of their attempted eviction and genocide”. She says she “benefitted from knowledge shared by Boandik custodian Ken Jones”, conversed “with Boandik linguist linguist David Moon”, and was supported in addressing “important questions about voice and Indigenous historicity”. As I’ve said before, it’s really up to the Boandik people to say whether they agree with their representation, but Lynch has, it seems, done the right thing: she has included them in her narrative (in an appropriate way) and has conferred with the people she ought about doing so.

I’ve spent a bit of time on this I know, but it’s important with historical fiction to be very clear about what it is we are reading. I’m not an expert in South Australian settler history, but I feel Lynch has provided me with enough here, in addition to the knowledge I do have, to reassure me that her story is a valid one, so let’s get to that …

“now that the country is settled”

Nearly halfway through the novel, Rosanna converses with her employer, the hard, English station-owner, Mr Ashby. He is searching for some local Indigenous people who, he believes, have been “filching” from him. Rosanna, who has befriended the young local woman, Moorecke, tells him that Moorecke “belongs on this land”. She adds, hoping to throw him “off the scent”, that she rarely sees “Blacks, now that the the country is settled.”

Here, and throughout the novel, Lynch layers meanings in brief exchanges. Implied in this little scene, for example, are multiple power imbalances – between settlers and the original inhabitants, between the landowning English and the oppressed Irish, and between man and woman. And of course, overlaying this is the fraught idea of being “settled” and all its connotations, political and personal, physical and emotional. “Now that the country is settled” implies of course that it was “unsettled” before. This novel, with its title, “Unsettled”, keeps this foundational wound front and centre in our minds, which, dare I say, “unsettles” us.

This layering of meaning is one of the reasons I found the book an enjoyable read, because I enjoy such thoughtful, provocative writing, but the enjoyment here is compounded by the characters, particularly Rosanna and Skelly. Both are well individualised, with the novel’s third person perspective shifting mainly between them.

Over the course of the novel, Rosanna is our guide to what happens on the frontier. She works for the landowning Ashbys; she spends time with and learns from Moorecke of the Boandik people; she rides with the poet Adam Lindsay Gordon and confesses to Father Tenison Woods. She falls in love naively, makes many mistakes big and small, can be mean and tender, but she is a warm, courageous young woman who is determined to make her way authentically through a world which pays little attention to the dreams, let alone rights, of women. A world, in fact, in which “men are dangerous creatures if thwarted”.

Skelly, her sensitive and somewhat frail younger brother, is both foil and support to Rosanna. Their relationship contains the typical sibling tensions, but love and loyalty underpin it. It is what happens to Skelly at a school in Melbourne that propels Rosanna’s actions which provide the novel’s opening drama.

As is common in historical fiction, Lynch uses a family drama to drive the narrative forward and engage our emotions and interest. Lynch also imbues her story with references to both Australian and English literature of the times. For keen-reader Rosanna, Anthony Trollope’s Irish heroine Feemy Macdermot, from his first novel The Macdermots of Ballycloran, offers lessons to heed.

The main work that threads through the novel, however, is Edward Geoghegan’s play The Hibernian father, which was a popularly performed tragedy in mid- to late-nineteenth century Australia. It tells a tragic story of the Lynches of Galway, whence our own Lynches had come. The tragedy distresses our young Lynches, and threatens to destabilise them as they struggle to forge their lives without failing in the same catastrophic way. Rosanna’s father Garrick Lynch reassures his family that “it’s an ancient story … from bloody times”, but the irony is that “bloody times” are still with them.

In the end, all of this has one goal, to serve the real point of Lynch’s story, the complicated politics of settlement, oppression and dispossession, the injustices of colonialism. As Rosanna becomes aware, during an interaction with her employer Mrs Ashby, “living on the edge of civilisation unsettles everyone”. Gay Lynch’s book does the same – and that, I’m sure, was her intent.

Challenge logo

Gay Lynch
Balmain:, 2019
ISBN: 9781925883237

(Review copy courtesy the author.)

Karen Jennings, Upturned earth (#BookReview)

Book coverIntroducing my review of South African writer Karen Jennings’ debut novel, Finding Soutbek, I noted that I don’t normally accept review copies from non-Australian publishers but that I will, very occasionally, make an exception if the writer or subject matter interests me. Upturned earth, Jenning’s fifth book, is set in a nineteenth century mining town. Given some general similarities between colonial South Africa and Australia, and my own, albeit youthful, experience of living in a mining town, I was intrigued to read it.

Upturned earth is set in 1886 in Namaqualand, the copper mining district of what was then Cape Colony. It’s an arid region crossing the South African-Nambian border, with its largest town being Springbok (Springbokfontein at the time of the novel). The novel commences with the arrival by boat from Cape Town of 28-year-old William Hull, who is due to take over as magistrate. On first appearances, Hull seems almost like an antihero:

Weak-willed, forgetful, Hull was a poor employee. He did as he was told, yet somehow was never able to fulfil the chores of the position with the same success as his colleagues did. He confused cases, misfiled documents, knocked over inkwells.

In fact, it seems that he is more interested in nature, than work. “He carried,” we’re told, “the droppings of animals folded in handkerchiefs, kept pink newborns warm in his hat”. However, on realising he had been given the job “because no other man would take it”, he resolves to “be firm. Punishments would be meted out. The law would be laid down.”

Unfortunately, life as Okiep’s Magistrate is not as he expects. Slowly, he learns that no-one in Okiep is independent, not even the Magistrate, because the town is unofficially run by the Cape Copper Mining Company. Its head is the Super, Mr Townsend, whose widowed daughter, Iris McBride, returns to Namaqualand on the same boat as Hull. Initially, despite hints to the contrary, he doesn’t realise the true situation, so settles down to a life of work and following his naturalist’s heart, which sees him going out in every spare moment to collect plant and animal specimens. He’s keen to contribute to scientific knowledge. But, the irony is that in “trying to understand the dead things around him”, he is overlooking the live ones.

The narrative is told through two parallel stories. Hull’s is one, the other is Noki’s. He’s a Xhosa mining labourer, one of many who come into Okiep to work and send money home to families in the surrounding regions. Noki, though, has an added concern. While he is away visiting family, his 17-year-old brother Anele is arrested for drunken and disruptive behaviour, and is imprisoned in the gaol attached to Hull’s Residence. This gaol is managed by gaoler-cum-Hull’s-manservant, Genricks. He dissuades Hull from inspecting the gaol. After all, he has it all in hand, and weak Hull, though making an attempt to do the right thing, lets himself be put off.

Given the novel is set in a colonial society, and one involving mines with white and indigenous workers overseen by an arrogant brutal man, you’ll have a picture of what this novel is about. Gradually, things come to a head and people’s true colours are exposed. It’s to his credit that Hull comes to his senses and finds a strength he didn’t know he had – but the calamity can’t all the righted, and the ending is an appropriate one. This is literary historical fiction, so it doesn’t all play out to form, opting for something a little more realistic. I’ll leave the plot at that.

The perfectly titled Upturned earth is Jennings’ third novel. Her writing is tight and expressive. She talks about indigenous workers being “broken down into acceptance”, and here is Hull’s perspective of the place after he suffers a disappointment:

… and he saw as though with new eyes what he had lived in and grown accustomed to these past months. The dull sky, the wearying streets and stained homes, the disgrace of the prison building.

Plain language, but it is all that’s needed.


The important question to ask about historical fiction is – why? The obvious answer is that there are many stories worth telling, stories that the majority of us have never heard, like, for example, Eleanor Limprecht’s Long Bay (my review) about abortionist Rebecca Sinclair who was gaoled in Long Bay in 1909, and Emma Ashmere’s The floating garden (my review) about the demolition of homes in the 1920s to make way for the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Jennings explains her reason for writing this book in her Author’s Note and Acknowledgements. She was inspired John M. Smalberger’s book, Aspects of the history of copper mining in Namaqualand (1846-1931), in which she found magistrate William Charles Scully. From there she went to various other books, including Scully’s own reminiscences. This is fiction, however, so, says Jennings, her character Hull’s “weaknesses are all his own”. However, the brutality (and name) of gaoler Genricks are fact, though the events relating to him, the Super and others have been fictionalised. Then comes her main point: she sees her novel as being “a comment on the history of commercial mining in South Africa – the exploitation, conditions and corruption that began in the 1850s and continue to the present”.

The novel, then, is a plea for humanity, for kindness. Here is Hull, halfway through the novel, talking with Cornish miner Tregowning whom he has just met. Tregowning describes the mistreatment of the miners, and particularly the indigenous ones, but Hull can’t quite believe or accept what he is saying:

Tregowning turned to face the magistrate. ‘Are we not taught to vindicate the weak and fatherless, to help the afflicted and destitute, to rescue the feeble and needy? To deliver them out of the hands of the wicked?’

Hull looked around uneasily. His tongue felt thick as he spoke. ‘Some would call those revolutionary words.’

‘I thought they were biblical.’

Which way will our weak Mr Hull go is the question we confront as we read. But, the theme is clear from the start – man’s inhumanity to man (especially in these colonial environments) and what can be done about it. Pondering what has changed and what hasn’t is why we read historical fiction. I enjoyed this book.

Karen Jennings
Upturned earth
London: Holland Park Press, 2019
ISBN: 9781907320910

(Review copy courtesy Holland Park Press)

W. Somerset Maugham, The four Dutchmen (#Review)

W. Somerset Maugham, Collected Short Stories Volume 4Finally, an excuse to mention W. Somerset Maugham here – and the excuse is, as Aussie literary fiction followers will probably know, that Mirandi Riwoe’s Stella shortlisted novella, The fish girl, is a response to (was inspired by) Maugham’s short story “The four Dutchmen”. I don’t usually feel I need to read the original work in these situations but given the original here was a short story and given it gets Maugham into this blog, I decided to read it.

Before I get to the story, I must explain that one of the reasons I’d like Maugham here is because I was astonished some years ago to discover just how many of his novels, short stories and plays had been adapted to film. Wikipedia says that he was “one of the first authors to make significant money from film adaptations”. So, having seen several of the films and read a few of his books, I’ve wanted him here – albeit Maugham described himself as “in the very first row of the second-raters”!

“The four Dutchmen” has not, as far as I know, been adapted to film, but it makes interesting reading. In his introduction to the volume of collected stories which includes this one, Maugham says that “most of these stories are on the tragic side. But the reader must not suppose that the incidents I have narrated were of common occurrence.” He then describes how the majority of the people in the Asian regions from which the stories come are decent hardworking people, but

they are not the sort of people I can write stories about. I write stories about people who have some singularity of character which suggests to me that they may be capable of behaving in such a way as to give me an idea that I can make use of, or about people who by some accident or another, accident of temperament, accident of environment, have been involved in unusual contingencies.

The four Dutchmen – a captain, chief officer, chief engineer, and supercargo on a Dutch tramp – are such people. The four fattest men our narrator ever knew,

They were the greatest friends, all four of them; they were like schoolboys together, playing absurd little pranks with one another.

And in such a way, the first person narrator (ostensibly the author) sets them up as jolly, cheery men for whom having a good time was more important, say, than winning money from each other at bridge. After all,

‘All friends and a good ship. Good grub and good beer. Vot can a sensible man vant more?’


… the captain was very susceptible to the charms of the native girls and his thick English became almost unintelligible from emotion when he described to me the effect they had on him. One of these days he would buy himself a house on the hills in Java and marry a pretty little Javanese. They were so small and so gentle and they made no noise, and he would dress her in silk sarongs and give her gold chains to wear round her neck and gold bangles to put on her arms.

The last two sentences here comprise the epigraph Riwoe uses to open The fish girl – but more on that next week.

What happens is that the captain brings a Malay girl on board, against the wishes of his friends, and tragedy ensues – as our narrator pieces together from later newspaper reports and the hotel manager. It’s a story about friendship and loyalty, envy (probably) and revenge. But it’s also about colonial attitudes to local inhabitants, and about men seeing women as objects or toys to be played with and discarded at will.

The interesting thing is Maugham’s attitude. What is it? This is not a didactic story. The first person narrator makes no specific commentary on the rights and wrongs of the four men’s behaviour, but seems to act rather as observer and reporter. However, I think we can glean some opinion. He initially finds them fun to be with, but there are hints that he sees them lacking in substance. At one point he says “to me not the least comic part of them was their serious side” and a little later he comments ironically, after the chief had made an egregious statement, that he “had a philosophic soul”. His, the narrator’s, concluding comment seems off-hand – as if it’s just another story about characters he’s met. And maybe that’s all it is to him, but I’d say there’s ironic intent behind the reference to the “comic and celebrated friendship”.

It’s somewhat more difficult to pin down his attitude to the young woman who is first referred to as “pretty little Javanese”, then “a little thing” and “Malay girl”, before finally being characterised as “brazen hussy”, “bad rubbish”, and “trollop”. She has no voice at all in “the story” – but these descriptions of her are reported rather than his own, so again I’d say he is asking us to consider the attitudes and values he portrays. Anyhow, next week I’ll review Riwoe’s post-colonial response to the story.

Meanwhile, I’d love to know what you think of Maugham (if you’ve read him)?

W. Somerset Maugham
“The four Dutchmen” (1928)
in Collected short stories, Vol. 4
(Selected by Maugham himself)
London: Vintage Books. (Orig. pub. 1951)
ISBN: 9781409076421 (ePub)

John Lang, The forger’s wife (#BookReview)

John Lang, The forgers wifeWhen new publisher Grattan Street Press offered me a review copy of John Lang’s The forger’s wife last November, I couldn’t resist, even though it is from their Colonial Australian Popular Fiction series. I say “even though” because, had it been written now, it would probably not have come under my radar. It’s very much in the popular vein. However, as a piece of work first published (in serial version) in 1853, it has much to offer modern readers.

It raises the question, in fact, of why read historical fiction when you can read from the time itself. I’m being a bit flippant here, I know. There is reason – there’s value in looking back, in revisiting the past with eyes from the present – but the question is worth asking, if only to focus our minds on context when we read.

Enough pontificating though, let’s get to the book – or, first, to the author. According to Grattan Street Press, John Lang was Australia’s first locally born novelist. I have in fact written about him briefly before, in a Monday Musings post, but I hadn’t had a chance to read him, until now. I mentioned in that post Victor Crittenden’s biography, because its title says a lot – John Lang: Australia’s larrikin writer: barrister, novelist, journalist and gentleman. Ken Gelder and Rachel Weaver’s Introduction to The forger’s wife provides interesting background to his life, some from Crittenden’s work. Lang, it seems, lived quite a peripatetic life, and had had a few books published by the time The forger’s wife was serialised.

Gelder and Weaver write that it’s generally accepted that The forger’s wife is “the first novel by an Australian-born novelist to feature an Australian detective.” They go on to suggest that it is “the first detective novel in the Anglophone world” arguing that it predates by around ten years The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix which has been seen as the first detective novel in English. The rest of their introduction – naturally, because the series is about popular fiction – focuses on the book as a detective novel. However, I’d like to discuss other things.

The novel is essentially a melodrama which, say Gelder and Weaver, follows “the fairly familiar pattern of a female emigrant’s tale.” It tells the story of Emily Orford, the rather spoilt only child of a well-to-do British army officer. Eschewing more suitable suitors, she falls for a man whom she believes to be Captain Reginald Harcourt, but who is, in fact, the forger Charles Robert. Immediately after their elopement, he is arrested and convicted of forgery, and transported to Australia. Emily, believing that Reginald is innocent, follows him to Sydney. Here, she luckily finds a few friends amongst the colony’s rough and tumble, one being the convict turned policemen-and-thief-taker (our detective), George Flower. She also reconnects with the scurrilous Reginald/Charles, who, despite getting into increasingly outrageous scrapes, manages to keep Emily believing in him. This is a 19th century melodrama so it all turns out alright in the end, though not necessarily exactly as readers might expect.

What I want to talk about now, though, is why this novel is worth reading – besides its credentials as a pioneering detective novel, that is. My reasons have to do with the insight it provides into colonial life. Think how much we learn about life in mid-nineteenth century England from Charles Dickens’ novels. So …

“this uncouth and cruel land” (Emily)

We learn a few things about early to mid-nineteenth century colonial Australia, starting with some vivid descriptions of town and country. We learn about the roughness, the struggle to survive which results in various combinations of theft, corruption, bribery. The novel’s themes include the survival of the wiliest, and the challenge of identifying who you can trust. The naive, trusting Emily would not have survived a minute without the initial help of Captain Dent from Lady Jane Grey, the boat she arrived on, and then George Flower who looks out for her.

We learn about how women make a living – some via the oldest profession. Emily, though, gives piano lessons. However, when she becomes persona non grata because of Reginald, she’s “compelled to do needlework, to knit socks and comforters”. We learn about convicts who become policemen versus those who become bushrangers. We learn about settlers taking the law into their own hands. George Flower, on the hunt for Reginald now turned bushranger, tells a well-to-do settler that settlers need to learn to protect themselves:

The Gov’ment’s a fool for paying for mounted police. You ought to learn the value of combination, and how to protect yourselves.

Later on the same page he says:

I wish to teach you settlers, and the Gov’ment, and bushrangers, a great moral lesson. I want to make you more independent and secure – bushrangers less numerous and daring – and Gov’ment more economic and sensible.

And, of particular interest to me, we learn about attitudes to the original inhabitants. In between the above two comments, Flower says:

You can club up to get rid of the blacks, when they spear your cattle or kill your sheep. Why can’t you capture your own bushrangers?

So, the settlers clearly have no compunction about getting rid of the blacks themselves. Presumably they are “easier pickings” and don’t warrant the respect of a lawful process? You don’t always need to read history, then, to know what went on. Sometimes fiction contains useful truths.

There are other references – or not – to indigenous people. A little earlier than the above scene, Flower is enjoying a lovely moment in a remote spot, where:

he discoursed for some time with [bushranger] Millighan on the grandeur of the scene, and the sweets of liberty. It was a beautiful warm day, and not a cloud in the sky. The foot of man had never before trod the ground on which Flower and Millighan were then standing.

I don’t think Lang was being ironic here!

Later, Flower returns to the same spot, where Millighan’s skeleton now lies. He treats the skeleton of this “brave” adversary with respect, leaving a note to ensure that when, in the future, the remains might be “stumbled across”, the finders will “not suppose he was some black fellow”!

And yet, a page later, there’s recognition of learning from these same “black fellows” when he makes a fire “as the Aborigines do, by rubbing two pieces of dry stick together until they ignite.”

The final reference to indigenous people also refers to cultural learning. We are told that Flower, now back in England, had become very “‘colonial'” not only in “outward appearance”, but also in “parlance”. “He had mixed a good deal with the blacks” and, while the Aboriginal language was not “thoroughly understood by the Europeans”, it had contributed “sundry worlds and phrases” which Flower used, to the incomprehension of his listeners.

So, while I found the story itself entertaining – indeed a thoroughly enjoyable read – it’s these unconscious insights into the times by a writer of the times that has made this book memorable. I would love to read more in this series.

John Lang
The forger’s wife
Parkville: Grattan Street Press, 2017 (Orig. serialised in 1853)
ISBN: 978098762304

(Review copy courtesy Grattan Street Press)

PS: I apologise for overwhelming your inboxes/reader feeds this week. There’s been a lot on. I’ll return to situation normal next week.

Kim Scott, That deadman dance

Kim Scott That Deadman Dance

Kim Scott's That Deadman Dance (Image courtesy Picador Australia)

About a third of the way into Kim Scott‘s novel That deadman dance is this:

We thought making friends was the best thing, and never knew that when we took your flour and sugar and tea and blankets that we’d lose everything of ours. We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours.

And, it just about says it all. In fact, I could almost finish the post here … but I won’t.

That deadman dance is the first indigenous Australian novel I’ve read about the first contact between indigenous people and the British settlers. I’ve read non-indigenous Australian authors on early contact, such as Kate Grenville‘s The secret river, and I’ve read indigenous authors on other aspects of indigenous experience such as Alexis Wright‘s Carpentaria and Marie Munkara’s Every secret thing. Kim Scott adds another perspective … and does it oh so cleverly.

The plot is pretty straightforward. There are the Noongar, the original inhabitants of southwest Western Australia, and into their home/land/country arrive the British. First, the sensitive and respectful Dr Cross, and then a motley group including the entrepreneurial Chaine and his family, the ex-Sergeant Killam, the soon-to-be-free convict Skelly, the escaped sailor Jak Tar, and Governor Spender and his family. The novel tracks the first years of this little colony, from 1826 to 1844.

That sounds straightforward doesn’t it? And it is, but it’s the telling that is clever. The point of view shifts fluidly from person to person, though there is one main voice, and that is the young Noongar boy (later man), Bobby Wabalanginy. The chronology also shifts somewhat. The novel starts with a prologue (in Bobby’s voice) and then progresses through four parts: Part 1, 1833-1836; Part 2, 1826-1830; Part 3, 1836-1838; and Part 4, 1841-44. And within this not quite straight chronology are some foreshadowings which mix up the chronology just that little bit more. The foreshadowings remind us that this is an historical novel: the ending is not going to be fairytale and the indigenous people will end up the losers. But they don’t spoil the story because the characters are strong and, while you know (essentially) what will happen, you want to know how the story pans out and why it pans out that way.

What I found really clever – and beautiful – about the book is the language and how Scott plays with words and images to tell a story about land, place and home, and what it means for the various characters. His language clues us immediately into the cross-cultural theme underpinning the book. Take, for example, the words “roze a wail” on the first page:

“Boby Wablngn” wrote “roze a wail”.
But there was no whale. Bobby was remembering …
“Rite wail”.
Bobby already knew what it was to  be up close beside a right whale …

Whoa, I thought, there’s a lot going on here and I think I’m going to enjoy it. Although Bobby’s is not the only perspective we hear in the book, he is our guide. He is lively and intelligent, and crosses the two cultures with relative ease: just right for readers venturing into unfamiliar territory. He’s a great mimic, and creates dances and songs. The Dead Man Dance is the prime example. It’s inspired by the first white people (the “horizon people”) and evokes their regimented drills with rifles and their stiff-legged marching. There’s an irony to this dance of course: its name foretells while the dance itself conveys the willingness of the Noongar to incorporate (and enjoy) new ideas into their culture.

In fact there’s a lot of irony in the novel. Here is ex-Sergeant Killam:

Mr Killam was learning what it was to have someone move in on what you thought was your very own home. He thought that was the last straw. The very last.

And who was taking his land? Not the Noongar of course, but the Governor … and so power, as usual, wins.

The novel reiterates throughout the willingness – a willingness supported, I understand, by historical texts – of the Noongar to cooperate and adapt to new things in their land:

Bobby’s family knew one story of this place, and as deep as it is, it can accept such variations.

But, in the time-old story of colonisation, it was not to be. Even the respectful Dr Cross had his blinkers – “I’ve taken this land, Cross said. My land”. And so as the colony grew, women were taken, men were shot, kangaroos killed, waters fouled, whales whaled out, and so on. You know the story. When the Noongar took something in return such as flour, sheep, sugar, they were chased away, imprisoned, and worse.

I’d love to share some of the gorgeous descriptions in the book but I’ve probably written enough for now. You will, though, see some Delicious Descriptions in coming weeks from this book. I’ll finish with one final example of how Scott shows – without telling – cultural difference. It comes from a scene during an expedition led by Chaine to find land. They come across evidence of a campsite:

You could see where people camped – there was an old fire, diggings, even a faint path. Bobby was glad they’d left; he didn’t want to come across them without signalling their own presence first, but Chaine said, No, if we meet them we’ll deal with them, but no need to attract attention yet.

Need I say more*?

The book has garnered several awards and some excellent reviews, including those from my favourite Aussie bloggers: Lisa (ANZLitLovers), the Resident Judge, the Literary Dilettante, and Matt (A Novel Approach). Our reviews differ in approach – we are students, teachers, historians, and librarian/archivists – but we all agree that this is a book that’s a must to read.

Kim Scott
That deadman dance
Sydney: Picador, 2010
ISBN:  9780330404235

* I should add, in case I have misled, that for all the truths this novel conveys about colonisation, it is not without vision and hope. It’s all in the way you read it.