Here is a novel that covers all my main preoccupations at once – Place, writing about Indigenous Australians, the Northern (WA) Rail, and the Independent Woman – yet still I find it problematic.
The Fringe Dwellers (1961) is situated in an unnamed Western Australian coastal town north of Perth. I’m not sure I picked this up when I first read this novel as a schoolboy, but it is clearly situated in Geraldton, where Gare was a district nurse, and whose steep hills and precariously perched fibro houses are instantly recognisable, not to mention the wharves and the railway line out through Mullewa, 100 km inland on the northern edge of the wheatbelt, and on, for 700 kms, to the outback mining towns of Mt Magnet, Meekatharra and Wiluna. And where, coincidentally, I have been carting out of these past couple of weeks, struggling with multiple trailers over these same hills on my way to Meeka and Laverton.
At the centre of the novel is the Comeaway family. Mrs Comeaway is ambitious for her children and has boarded them out in a mission school placed in a ‘generic’ north west town on the rail line which doesn’t appear to be either Meekatharra or Mullewa, the only two realistic candidates – but that’s just me looking for real places in a work of fiction.
Trilby was classified as a half-caste. For years now she had lived at the mission. There were four of the Comeaways there – Trilby’s older sister Noonah, and the young ones, ten year-old Bartie and the baby Stella, who was six… Trilby’s grandfathers, both of them had been white. The cold arrogance of one had centred in the narrow grey eyes that Trilby had inherited. From him, too, she had her slim height and her high-held head. And perhaps her stubborn rebellious spirit. Back at the mission she was considered a spitfire, cheeky and almost unmanageable. The other kids teased her about her strange light eyes, but Trilby was only acting when she bit back at them. At fifteen she was not yet brave enough to tell them she liked to be different.
Trilby and Noonah make the long train trip from the mission to live with their parents in a bush camp in the wattle scrub in the hills on the outer fringes of town. Noonah has been accepted at the local hospital as a trainee nurse, while Mr Comeaway, who has been an itinerant worker throughout outback Western Australia, is now a casual wharfie, joining the queue each morning to be selected – or not – for a day’s work (an indignity I put up with too at Dynon Rail in the late 60s).
In the slow-motion disaster that is The Fringe Dwellers, Noonah is the one constant, growing into her calling as a nurse, and her pay packet the only certain source of funds for the family from one week to the next. The Comeaways are allocated a detached State Housing home in a new estate, and the money to furnish it, the younger two children are brought home, and Trilby, not willing to do cleaning or child minding, reluctantly returns to her schooling at the local high school.
Inevitably, Trilby gets pregnant, another family moves in with them in the new house, friends and relatives from the bush camps or in from the country stay for indefinite periods, Mr Comeaway always gets out of bed just too late to be selected for work, there are drunken parties, the police are called, these and every other cliché of 1950s racial ’understanding’ are invoked.
Despite her work with Aborigines, Nene Gare demonstrates no understanding of Aboriginal kinship, the problems of having people from different language groups in the same place, or even that any of especially the older people she portrays may have a first language other than English.
The white people in the novel, the police and the ‘department’ men, and even the Comeaways’ white neighbours, are uniformly tolerant, but it is the tolerance of the conqueror, the tolerance we hear fifty years later from John Howard and Tony Abbott, a tolerance entirely without understanding or compromise.
This is a novel which has been read in schools ever since it was written. My copy, printed in 1991, is stamped English Dept, Bunbury Senior High and shows reprints every year, no doubt mostly for schools, but its dated view has outlived its usefulness. It is no longer valid for white authors to tell, or attempt to tell, black stories. This was an interesting, and perhaps even an informative book when I first read it in 1966 and Trilby is a believable heroine, striving against what turn out to be impossible odds to achieve independence, from men and from racial stereotyping. Now we are starting to hear Trilby’s story, and Noonah’s story, from the people who have lived those stories, and the difference is marked.
Nene Gare, The Fringe Dwellers, 1961 (Sun Paperback, Sydney, 1966)