Well, it’s taken me a while to get to Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (2010), but it was worth it and his earlier Benang is beside me in the TBR so now I suppose I must read that too. In fact I listened, rather than read, to the mellifluous tones of Humphrey Bower who, for audio book fans, is the voice of so many Australian books.
This is a historical novel, of first contact. Scott, I think, is at pains, subtly, to emphasise ‘novel’ rather than ‘historical’ with place names King George Town and Cygnet River alluding to the initial white settlements in WA at Albany (on King George Sound) and subsequently at Swan River. Reviewers were quick to point out similarities with The Secret River (2005), Kate Grenville but of course the novel’s real precursor is Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land (1941), a serious first attempt by the dominant white culture to understand both sides of the consequences of first contact at Botany Bay.
Kim Scott grew up on the south coast of Western Australia. As a descendant of those who first created human society along that edge of the ocean, he is proud to be one among those who call themselves Noongar. (Inside cover, Picador 2011 ed.)
So this is the first serious attempt to portray first contact from the other side, the losing side. And yet it is not ‘losing’ that Scott portrays. Rather, it is the attempts of the Noongar to deal with the numerically inferior whites fairly and in accord with custom. And, until the devastating last paragraph, it is an optimistic portrayal. The commonplaces of first contact, rape and murder and even the displacement of the original inhabitants, are largely mentioned obliquely, as happening to someone else and not to the principal (indigenous) characters.
Scott’s style of writing is engaging. He writes in the third person, and in the voice of each person, focusing on a number of characters, settler and Noongar, but circling back repeatedly to Bobby, Wabalanginy to his own people, a baby by his own estimation when the first ship comes in 1826, and who we see grow, but eccentrically, as Scott also circles around in time using the future to illustrate the present and the past.
Scott starts with Bobby practising his letters, but soon introduces Chaine who will become the principal merchant and entrepreneur of the new settlement, and at this point I thought “this is just another whiteman story set in the C19th”. And I was wrong. Scott has the gift of speaking in one voice for the settlers and another, entirely “other” voice for the Noongar. Every time we circle back to Bobby we swoop and swirl with his joy in being alive. In this example Bobby is at sea:
Oh imagine sailing on one of those very fine days on the ocean. Clear sky, sun and bright air, foam and bubbles at bow and wake, and taut, swelling sails, Bobby felt like a bird, rising on a sweep of air; he felt like a dolphin slipping easily in and out of the wave face.
The deck tilted mostly one way, and its regular beat at that angle put a rhythm to Bobby’s step, a walking uphill-downhill thing that, even with no music and no one singing out loud, made him want to dance (p.32)
The optimism of this story, of Bobby’s cooperation with, or cooption into, Chaine’s bustling enterprise, or of the happy marriage of Bobby’s sister Binyan and the white whaler cum shepherd, Jak Tar, is at odds with what we think we know of settler history. And with mostly male protagonists there is an absence too of sexual tension, and so, for a while, there is little narrative drive, but subtly – and there’s that word again- we are made aware that, in the background, there has been change. Bobby and Chaine’s daughter Christine, for many years playmates, are now distant. Bobby as an adult has responsibilities with his people and Christine is to marry the “Governor’s” son (I’m not sure why Scott invented a “governor” for Albany) but when they meet there is a charge between them. Likewise, the easy relationship between Bobby and Chaine evolves without us really noticing until, near the end, Bobby is using his familiarity with Chaine’s farms to raid them for food which Chaine is no longer willing to share, and as the Noongar had shared with the settlers in the past, and Chaine has grown with prosperity into pomposity and inflexibility.
I read recently that The Secret River is now the book most often set as a school text (ahead of My Brilliant Career). If we are serious about Reconciliation then I trust that one day soon that place will be taken by That Deadman Dance.
Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance, Picador 2010 and on Bolinda Audio, read by Humphrey Bower