Small Town Rising, Bill Green

Note: This review talks about rape and sex with children.

A couple of years ago a post of mine about the Mallee (Victoria’s semi desert north-west, if I haven’t made that clear by now) inspired Lisa/ANZLL to buy and read Small Town Rising. She then sent it on to me and now I’ve read it. For that reason I went back to her review before writing my own – I am sometimes careful about what I say. Lisa’s verdict was “This is a well-intentioned novel but there are some flaws.” My verdict is that this is a racist and misogynist book, which should not be excused for being of its time -1981 – and I intensely disliked reading it.

Bill Green (1940-2011) grew up in the Mallee, went away to school at Geelong College, worked in Australia and overseas as a journalist before settling in a small country town down south (Camperdown, Vic) with his wife and children. I look that stuff up because I always wonder what sort of feel the author has for his subject.

Now, to be fair to Lisa I think the author’s intention was to shine a light on small town racism, not something we generally think about in Victoria. And that he was just totally ham-fisted about it. There’s an Indigenous family, the Stirlings, – who might “pass for white” – living in town. The local police sergeant would like to pin something on them. There’s an Aboriginal community living in a camp on the NSW side of the river. The sergeant would like to stop them hanging around the town and Mayor Blossoms is willing to go along with him. Doctor Cavett, thinks ‘something should be done’ about police racism. His son John aged about 11, is friends with Chasa, the youngest Stirling.

Green is uninhibited about the racist language used by the cops, the mayor, and anyone else they rope in for assistance and we might put that down to that’s just the way people speak (unfortunate but true). Where he comes completely unstuck is in his treatment of women. He has a thing about legs. Girls barely in their teens have short skirts and long legs; a girl getting a lift home lets her skirt ride up which the driver, the doctor I think, totally gets off on; a teacher in her twenties sits so that her 11 and 12 year old pupils can see up to the tops of her stockings. The same teacher, called in to babysit, wrestles with John in his bed, and goes back for a second go when he, did I say he’s only 11, gets an erection.

This is all made worse by the author’s third person omniscient point of view which means we get told what everyone, mothers and daughters, victims and perpetrators are thinking.

The plot is basically this: John and Chasa do various YA things. John thinks more about sex than an 11 year old should. The mayor’s daughter Kay, in John and Chasa’s class at school, wanders away from an evening picnic…

[Mayor Blossoms] had flushed and shifted uncomfortably as the boong had passed his girls in their short dresses. Their long straight legs were beginning to give them problems: Kay’s especially. He had seen her looking at the boong as he passed.

Once in a childish game he had moved his hands beneath her knickers and over the tiny perfection of her buttocks. It could have been an affectionate fatherly caress, but he now thought of it as uncontrolled masculinity. Her cry of delight had affronted and frightened him.

… When Mayor Blossoms comes looking for her, Kay’s lying on the river bank some metres from Linny, Chasa’s older brother. The mayor rushes at Linny, treading on his daughter, and Linny understandably dives in the river. Kay says nothing happened. The doctor determines Kay is still a virgin and is unmarked (except for the bruise caused by her father). Linny is charged with molesting her.

The police sergeant gets up a party to burn down the Aboriginal camp on the other side of the river, ie. not in his jurisdiction. Chasa’s sister aged maybe 14, is invited to the movies by her young boss, who takes her home and rapes her. She tells her parents, who have been expecting it to happen sooner or later, and she’s not sure she feels terribly bad about it. The next picnic Kay is at she invites John down the river bank and they do some mutual touching inside knickers etc. Chasa goes missing. Life goes on.

I’ve thought a bit about the setting and it’s probably the early 1960s (John goes to see a re-release of The Maltese Falcon which first came out in 1941), and that Strong Lake is most likely based on Swan Hill, which as it happens I occasionally visited at that time, from my grandparents’ farm, and remember seeing Aboriginal people in the street and sitting in the parks, the only place in Victoria I ever did so.

.

Bill Green, Small Town Rising, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1981. 167 pp. Cover illustration – it wraps around the back -‘Monto in Landscape’, Gil Jamieson (1978) [as it happens, Monto is in Queensland, near Bundaberg, and 2,000 km north of the Mallee]

see also: A Literary Tour of the Mallee (here)

24 thoughts on “Small Town Rising, Bill Green

    • Never feel guilty about sending books. I didn’t get the impression Bill Green is a bad person, I just think he got the tone wrong (and I think we’ve changed a lot in 40 years).

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  1. The misogyny sounds truly awful Bill, but the Mayor Blossoms makes me wonder whether this is supposed to be satire? But then, I suppose if it is, it hasn’t worked very well.

    It’s hard for contemporary white writers to do racism and misogyny well, but one who does is probably Thea Astley, and she usually does it though damaged protagonists who can see what’s going on but be helpless to stop or change it? (Though she died over a decade ago, I think in this sense she is still contemporary.)

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    • The writer I thought of was Marie Munkara who has the (dubious) advantage of being able to write from the opposite perspective. Some of Green’s sexism in relation to female children seems to me unthinking, though the racism was certainly intended as satire. I don’t like him ascribing motives to the Stirlings’ acquiescence in the charges against the older boy, but that’s just me.
      (and yes, I too regard Astley as contemporary)

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      • Oh, I decided not to include Indigenous writers in my suggestions because they have a “right” as you would agree to describe their experiences. I was focussing on white writers. Munkara has a great voice for telling these stories.

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  2. All the reasons you describe here for not liking Small town Rising are the same concerns I had about The Slap, which made me feel gross most of the time. I wonder what made them different in your experience. I don’t have Small Town Rising to compare if the message is more blatant than in The Slap, but the first moment I thought of from The Slap was when the one guy was naked on his balcony ogling teen girls and thinking gross things about them.

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    • You make a good point. In The Slap ‘the guy on the balcony’ gets off scot free for what was clearly paedophilia, so I don’t disagree with you. I think maybe I expected Tsiolkas to be gross about sex whereas it surprised me here.

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    • I felt it was clear in The slap that Tsiolkas was showing us humanity in all its messiness and wanting us to see it for what it was. I found it an excellent confronting work encouraging us to question contemporary Australian humanity and to see how much it comes up wanting. I think he wanted us to look at his characters and compare our own behaviour with them.

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      • Sue, you and I are at odds over the difference between describing bad behaviour and endorsing bad behaviour. I think (and I think Melanie thinks) that Hector’s actions in relation to the female child Connie are both immoral and illegal and that Tsiolkas by not positing any consequences for Hector’s behaviour is tacitly endorsing it.

        Likewise I think that Green in describing the rape and molestation of female children is not satirising it, he is profiting from it.

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      • I take your point Bill, but I never really thought Tsiolkas condoned it. However I’d have to go back to read it to see why I felt that … and I’ll probably not do that. However, I feel, rightly or wrongly, that Tsiolkas wants us to judge rather than him be didactic. He wants us to think through the behaviours of all these characters and decide what we think. It’s more powerful that way. I think the reason so many didn’t like this book is because it made us uncomfortable. That is exactly why I liked it. It showed us what violent people we really are, and that’s scary. I think this is what I said the novel was about, in my review but maybe I wasn’t clear enough.

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    • I think the author was attempting to describe what he saw of small town life growing up, but as you can see, I don’t think he did it very well. What I find most interesting about novels with young protagonists is that I personally had no idea or interest in what adults were doing when I was a kid, let alone any idea of what motivated them.

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  3. A book I probably won’t cross paths with but I found the conversation here interesting. I’m also kne of the few people who did not get into the slap or watch the series. 🐧🌼

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    • I thought I knew all about The Slap from listening to it being discussed on ABC Radio. Obviously I didn’t, but I’m glad I’ve read it now, which is probably more than I can say about Small Town Rising.

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  4. Having grown up in small town NSW, the stuff about racism sounds about right, but like you said, most of the kids had absolutely no idea about the lives of the adults around them, even our parents. The exceptions were those poor young girls, often the pretty ones, who were exposed to sexualised comments and behaviour from adult men from way too young an age. Even in primary school I remember thinking that I was lucky to be just an ordinary looking girl. One of my sisters had a much harder time.

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    • I was a boy with brothers and had no idea. At uni I spent first year in an all boys college and probably had even less idea. Though living with a hundred Christian Porters was eye opening. As a young man I started living with women, but I was in my thirties before I even began to realise just how often men hit on girls, and it was probably a decade before I realised how harmed the girls were, for life often. And of course it doesn’t stop when the girls become adults.

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      • Even men with sisters can sometimes not realise. Mr Books & I were discussing a young woman at our uni a few years ago now, who was infamous for her sexual exploits. He was using her as an example of the ‘but some women really like sex a lot’. She was from my home town, he was devastated/ shocked when I told him about her childhood & that her sexual antics were a major cry for help.
        Looking back, it upsets me that the whole town knew/suspected what was happening to her as a child, & no one did anything to protect her.

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      • I’m with Mr Books, though I would have put it ‘some girls came across for anyone’, not that I ever got close to such girls, they belonged to the footballers. And yes I remember one of those girls at my last school was reputed to put out for her brothers as well. As I say, it took me many years to begin to understand. It’s not up to me to say those girls were unhappy, but they were certainly in an unhappy situation. And has it improved? I don’t think ‘uncles’ and stepfathers get such a free go as they used to, but I think girls are still under terrible pressure. And as we see, the whole men with power thing just goes on completely unchecked.

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      • Brona, you caught me as I was thinking about writing a post about it, so it was all at the top of my head. I decided against it and tomorrow will have to be post free, until I finish reading my current book.

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  5. Not having read this book myself, I don’t have any specifics to offer to the discussion about it, other than that I do find it interesting to read older books, whose authors are obviously trying to expose social and cultural inequities and injustices. Sometimes they are successful but, even when they are, it’s usually complicated (or, to use another overused term, problematic)!

    As for The Slap, I’m sitting on the couch with Sue. If someone could please pass the pasty plate, I’d be forever grateful. I’d much rather be presented with a situation in fiction than be told how I’m supposed to think and feel about it. Every one of the characters in The Slap is a mess, it’s just a matter of how much and what kind of a mess; to me, it felt believable and unpleasant and I think he handles his position of observer deftly, so that he is examining the situation from a variety of perspectives but without fully engaging. Isn’t there a famous quote about how art is supposed to discomfit us? 🙂

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  6. I Duckduckgoed “art is supposed to discomfit”, it brings up some interesting discussions.
    The point I think about The Slap, and for that matter, about Small Town Rising, is that it is not the author’s intention which is important, but the way we read – all the different ways we read, as is obvious from this discussion.
    I mean, we read Tsiolkas because we trust his intentions, but the writer exposes himself in his writing, not always in the ways he thinks he is (sorry for all those he’s) and I think Bill Green exposes himself as old fashioned and, like Melanie, I think Tsiolkas exposes himself as centred on his phallus.

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