Just Above My Head, James Baldwin

North America Project 2022

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was one of the great novelists I’m sure. But for reasons of my own I didn’t read Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) for my matric (year 12), and though I did read many years ago, and still own, Giovanni’s Room (1956) I didn’t like it. They were his first two novels. I’ve now listened to Just Above My Head (1979), his sixth and last and thought it a work of genius.

I wrote that introduction a few weeks ago, so over the last couple of days, on my way down from North Queensland, I’ve listened again, and liked it just as much. The novel is ostensibly the story of a gay Black gospel singer, Arthur Montana, during the years of the US Civil Rights Movement, the 1950s and 60s, as told by his older brother, Hall.

Hall, himself, at the beginning of the fifth and final ‘book’, says something like “I set out to write a poem of praise for my brother, and inevitably I wrote about myself.” What I think Baldwin wanted, and succeeded in doing, was to spell out to the world the condition of the Black man at this time in America by focusing on two closely connected pairs of siblings – Hall and Arthur, Julia and Jimmy, growing up in Harlem but whose parents have come up from the South – mostly through the eyes of Hall, but sometimes through Arthur’s eyes using the device “he later told me”.

Daniel saw the stone that was hewed out the mountain
Daniel saw the stone that was rolled into Babylon
Daniel saw the stone that was hewed out the mountain
Tearing down the kingdom of this world!

As a reader I would have skipped this and gone straight to the beginning of the text, which would have been a mistake. Baldwin has infused the whole novel with driving rhythms, taken from gospel singing and gospel preaching. There is a lot of music in this book, discussed and quoted. Hall says at one point, “Look for the beat. And look for the beat underneath.”

A while ago, I wrote that Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Christina Stead’s Letty Fox (1946) appeared to indicate that there was a New York school of writing in the 1940s and 50s characterised by an unstoppable flow of words. Baldwin appears to be of this school, and to have taken it to a new level. Whole sections of the novel aren’t descriptions of speech and action at all, but bursts of words, reinforced by repetition, setting an atmosphere.

The damn’d blood burst, first through the nostrils, then pounded through the veins in his neck, the scarlet torrent exploded through his mouth, it reached his eyes and blinded him, and brought Arthur down, down, down, down, down.

And so the book begins, with a hymn and with Arthur’s death, alone in the basement toilet of a pub in London.

Hall is writing from the perspective of a couple of years later. He is settled, with a wife and teenage children. They are visiting Julia, who was once his lover. Jimmy, Julia’s little brother and Arthur’s lover for the 14 years up to his death, walks in and is welcomed home. Julia gets out a photo albumn and so the whole story is told in Book 1, and Books 2,3,4,5 are enhancements, reinforcement, repetition.

I wish, wish, wish I had the book beside me on this truckstop table. It deserves a much more detailed – and loving – treatment than I am able to give it here. As I have implied, it is a mighty work of poetry, 20 hours or so, which is of course a credit to the reader, Kevin Kenerly, who interprets, sustains it over that considerable time, interestingly, playing down the song lyrics quoted and playing up the rhythms and variations in force of Baldwin’s writing.

We go back 30 odd years, to the late 1940s, Hall and Arthur are with their parents at a church service to see Julia, a child prodigy, preach, and Arthur sing. Hall’s father, a pianist, plays accompaniment. Julia’s father, a spiv, reads the lesson.

“Amen”, said Julia. “Now that was David talking. You all know who David was? David wrote these psalms and I believe they was put to music in the olden times and the people just sang and made a joyful noise unto the Lord with the psalms. This is David talking, and you know who David was? Well David went out one day looking for this wicked giant … You all still don’t know who David was? David was a shepherd boy, he fed the hungry sheep! I hear some of you saying, Who was this David? tell me more about this David! Well David was a king …”

The two families go back to the Montana’s apartment for dinner and so we become engrossed in their lives. Julia’s mother dies. Jimmy is sent down south to his grandmother. Julia stays, is her father’s support. Arthur and his friends form a Gospel singing group, tour down south. Hall is called up to fight in Korea. We don’t follow him, all the action remains in New York and in the South.

Julia is beaten senseless by her father. Julia preaches her last service with Arthur once again singing. Julia falls out of the story for a while, living quietly with Jimmy and her grandmother, reappears in New York as a model as Hall gets home from Korea.

Every Black person is described in the degrees and shades of their colour. Until near the end, when Arthur has a white lover in Paris, there are no white people in the story at all, other than Klanners down South.

The terror, the danger, for Black people, Northerners, of even driving through the South is visceral. There are rapes and murders. But all along the focus is on the central four. Arthur tours, sings within the frame of the Civil Rights Movement, some of their friends go off to join Malcolm X, but the focus is tight, we are not told about the movement, or about racism. We feel it.

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James Baldwin, Just above my Head, first pub. 1979. Audiobook: Blackstone, 2016, read by Kevin Kenerly. 21 hours

see also these reviews from Emma/Book around the Corner:
Go Tell it on the Mountain (here) “Interesting, but difficult to read”
Giovanni’s Room (here) “Another Baldwin masterpiece”
Going to meet the Man (here) “A Must Read”
If Beale Street Could Talk (here) “A Must Read”
A Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou (here) “An ode to James Baldwin”

Out Here, Alan Wearne

I know, the top half of the cover photo is warped. Blame my phone. But to the best of my memory, that house, just around the corner from Mum’s retirement village, is the one the Wearne’s lived in when I was at school in Blackburn South (Melbourne) and where I would occasionally deliver the newspaper when I worked at Pentland’s newsagency in Canterbury Rd, putting the rounds together for the paperboys at 5.00 in the morning.

Alan was a couple of years ahead of me, in his little arty clique, but I was good friends with his brother, so knew him to say hello to, saw him occasionally later on as we made our separate ways through uni.

Out Here (1976) is Alan Wearne’s first verse novel. The Nightmarkets followed 10 years later (when Out Here was reissued and I’m guessing, revised) and after that The Lovemakers (2001,4). He has other titles, collections of verse, I think, some of which I own. I recently saw a new title, Near Believing (2022) in the bookshop, and bought it, but it’s just a best-of of old stuff, so I thought why not go back to the source.

Out Here is one story from multiple points of view. Brett Viney, 17, has stabbed himself in the stomach in the school toilets and nine people around him have a say. The first is Lucy Martinson, deputy principal [From memory, our headmaster at Blackie South was Mr Martindale, and his deputy, whose name I don’t remember, was a woman at of around 70]: “I viewed the eddies of the Viney maelstrom.”

Some small crisis; at once
with bandages, the ambulance completed,
I rang adults: Brett’s mother and father, home
and, as they say, ranting.

In the staff room a teacher tells her “Viney seemed attached to/young Tracey Izzard. Tell her?/Before rumours, it would be best,/you know how women …”

Brett’s parents, Marian and Russell, have just broken up. Alan is quite clever, both at giving them different voices, and in showing through their inner monologues, and that’s what each section is, how Brett is only one of, and probably not even their main concern. First Marian: “I held to Russ,/had kids not opinions”

O Brett, son, we were, are crazy for
playthings, and pocket money, but
your father and I, until recently, held,
we tried. Try and care Brett. Care.

So, to my son’s Tracey: she has a long
pale neck, slight ginger hair and
this unnerving abundance, poise.

Then Russell, on the road to stay with his “has-been brother: ex-league-star and slob” [‘league’=NSW, so he’s heading interstate]: “Could say: ‘You did a fool thing,/call him mate, the stock/ ageing man response to/ sonny Brett”; but then goes back to thinking about his girlfriend Cheryl, and good times past with Marian.

Segue to Cheryl: “Calls me Chezz, too often now/ and I join his his school at times/ knowing they want to touch me up,/men, ten, fifteen years older, wishing/and hoping”. She’s told about Brett, but Russell leaving his wife is her big chance, her only thought to grab it with both hands. “You know, I’ve many men/Miss Cheryl Browne’s had many men,/but this is the, what, first starring role.”

We go on to Marian’s father, a millionaire house builder living in an expensive bayside suburb, and then Marian’s ‘commo’ younger sister; all of the voices reflecting not so much on why Brett may have harmed himself but on their own relationships and interrelationships.

Nothing halts, when Brett took out
the blade, lives continued, parents
kept their spar and interchange
boiling: the rest, I, his
sister and brother, you Tracey, stood
not knowing.

Tracey and then Brett follow, and I am still not clear what Brett was upset about – his parents, Tracey, life? Is that deliberate, or is it just me? Tracey suggests that Brett was depressed, “the Viney gloom”, and that she had had to take a week off during term, which may have led to: “I suppose pregnancy rumours/ have flung my name and Brett’s/ around the school.”

She turns to her father:

You know what I like, liked the best
apart from being with Brett, you know?
Dad’s greenhouse, Saturday morning.
Where we’ve talked about Brett
and Mum, her delicate problems ..

Brett speaks from some time in the future, from another suburb: “My childhood terminated hunched up/ in Martinson’s office, bleeding,/ it seems so long ago and/ such a mess.” He remembers his family visiting him in hospital – “no never ‘how could you do this to us etc’/never that, rather a wallow/ that they enjoyed their blame.”

And finally Mr Izzard, Tracey’s father: “I may be asked to, as were, round off/ though don’t expect some he did this,/she said that, happy ever after slice.” Though, perhaps he does: “O Tracey, it’s all right/ everything is going to be, all right.”

My feeling, having read and reread and written this far is that Out Here is not a novel (or novella), so much as a suite of voices telling a story, no not even a story, and certainly not Brett’s story which is largely lost in the voices washing over it, but a feeling for parenting in 1970s suburbia. Which is interesting, as Alan grew up in 1950s and 60s suburbia, matriculating in 1966. And The Nightmarkets which he wrote next, is definitely the story of his, my, generation, the boys made to go to war – or jail – in 1968,69,70.

I read Alan Wearne because he, his subjects are familiar. But I like his poetry too, that slightly awkward mixture of poetic rhythm and vernacular is both unique and reminiscent of CJ Dennis and AB Paterson – but without the galloping ryhmes!

The last lines of Miss Martinson’s, section, the ‘Miss’ is mine, but none of our teachers was ever ‘Lucy’, are perfect:

‘But why Brett (isn’t it?) why?’
Oh his shrug and oh just, just
mucking around with a knife.

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Alan Wearne, Out Here, first pub. 1976. This edition, Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle NSW, 1986. 50pp

see also my reviews:
Alan Wearne, The Nightmarkets (here)
CJ Dennis, The Sentimental Bloke (here)

Wheel Tracks, WW Ammon

This is of course pure indulgence, but my recent adventures up dirt roads reminded my of this book of early Western Australian trucking which someone with a very neat hand gave me in 1985, my father, I guess. It has since led a hard life and not many of the pages are still attached to the spine.

Though Carnarvon, on the coast of Western Australia, has firmly established itself as the banana town of the west, it was not always so. Once wool was its only industry; and those who carried the wool from the out-lying stations were the truck drivers who are the theme of this book.

… trucks had come to stay, chiefly through the resourcefulness and initiative of that peculiar breed of person, the truck driver. What makes a young man love a motor so?

The trucks, little high-pressure-tyred vehicles always grossly overloaded, were pitted against those hundreds of miles of rutted wheel tracks, endless loose sandhills, washed-out river crossings, tropical deluges and a pitiless sun.

The map, though of course Ammon doesn’t say so, is all Yamaji country, bordering on Noongar at the bottom. Geraldton, which dates back to 1851, is not shown but it is more or less opposite the name ‘Indian Ocean’. The North West Coastal Hwy which is the road I use to go that way, now comes up from Perth between Three Springs and the coast, through Greenough to Geraldton, crosses the Murchison R at the Galena bridge and then follows the route labelled Sandalwood Track to Carnarvon, Minilya, Winning and northwards on to Karratha today, and back then, the 1920s, to Roebourne and Cossack (WA map).

Which reminds me, I am still unable to recognise sandalwood whose harvest was once an important WA industry, nor most of the other trees and shrubs the author casually mentions, “thickets of jam-trees … with cork-trees, mulga and beefwood, while a tangle of wild wattle, bluebush, quandongs, and a species of wild plum grew in abundance.”

And just for Melanie, “scorpions, six inches long with claws on them like the gilgies [fresh water crays] down south. And centipedes half as long as your arm, that can run like the very devil … Lizards won’t hurt you, but there are plenty of nasty little spinifex snakes about …”

On his first trip he learns to charge up sandhills, making multiple attempts and laying brush down to stop those hard, narrow tyres from digging in. Then someone invents trailers! First with one axle and only carrying a few more wool bales, then with two and carrying up to 18, or 3 tons. So now a hill they may have charged over, they are dragging this dead weight and are bogged all the time.

Of course these new-fangled trucks were fiercely resented by camel team drivers – a team of 23 camels, a wagon and all the gear might represent an investment of two to three thousand pounds. Nevertheless the camel teamsters lost contract after contract, hence the ferals I photographed the other day (maybe 400 km due east).

These days you see signs along the road about Charles Kingsford Smith, our most famous pioneer aviator. He made his start in this region delivering mail and the author for a while is driving a truck which once belonged to him.


Realizing the great potential for air transport in Australia, Kingsford Smith formed a partnership in 1924 with fellow pilot Keith Anderson. They raised the capital to buy two Bristol Tourers by operating a trucking business from Carnarvon, the Gascoyne Transport Co. ADB


I have to have a truck photo, so here’s a Graham truck manufactured in Evansville, Indiana, in the 1920s and the first truck Ammon drove.

Some things never change. Ammon was on trip rates, 3d a mile, no matter how long he spent loading/unloading or broken down repairing his truck on the road. Sixteen hours averaging 5mph would get you one pound/day. Today you might earn 44c/km, and average 90 kph for 14 hours, let’s say $500/day or 250 times as much. If that matches inflation then an average Perth house, $500K today would be the same as one thousand pounds then. I can’t find any figures to suggest whether or not that was the case. I suspect the 1925 house price might have been less.

And of course, other drivers “never passed another driver on the road without stopping for a yarn or boiling the billy with him. If he was in trouble they stayed …” I’m pleased to say drivers out here still stop, if you’re in trouble anyway.

There’s always a sad story in Australian bush yarns. Jimmy Stewart who taught Ammon the ropes, on his last trip before going home to Edinburgh to marry his sweetheart, was found dead on the track. He’d leaned out to look back at a dodgy tyre on his trailer, had lost his grip, fallen, hit his head, and the truck had carried on without him.

Carnarvon is at the mouth of the Gascoyne River, which is often dry for months at a time – “nothing but a sandy watercourse 500 miles long.” Carnarvon only has around 10 inches of rain/year so when the river floods it is generally from rain hundreds of kms inland. The streets of the town are quite low compared with the river and these days are protected by a long levee. Even so, one xmas 10 or 12 years ago I was held up there for a week, water all round so that they finally sent us dozen or so trucks an early xmas dinner by helicopter to keep us going. When the water went down the road south was so badly cut that we had to go home the long way (picture: the convoy setting out north along the river), 400 kms north, 400 kms inland, then 1400 kms south to accomplish what should have been a 900 km journey. Ammon describes getting across swimming, by boat and as the river went down, in trucks towed by camels.

As trucks got quicker, roads got worse, broken up by corrugations. Within a few years and before he was thirty, “Snow” Ammon was out of trucking for good, his back destroyed. Now, before I end I want to return to the Yamaji. How the West was won was pretty brutal – and the excerpt below is describing the situation, not so long ago, in my, and maybe your, grandparents’ time.

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WW Ammon, Wheel Tracks: Trucking accross the great north-west, Angus & Robertson, 1966. 220pp.


Early on, the author gives a lift to “a pair of young aborigines returning to Bigemia Station”.

“One of these boys answered to the name of Charcoal, the other to Jumbo. These were the white man’s names for them and illustrated, I thought, the status they held in the white man’s world – a brand by which they answered the crack of the white man’s whip and did his bidding in return for a few shabby clothes and the scraps from his kitchen … a kerosene tin [into which went] all the left-overs, the slops and the scrapings from the dishes, the tea leaves … At the end of the day an old gin came from the native camp … and carried it away to be shared as the evening meal.

In the north I was often told that an aboriginal only understands what you bash into his head with a piece of wood. And while I have seen plenty of this kind of thing done, I never have believed, and never will believe, that the native appreciated it…” [!]

A History of Dreams, Jane Rawson

The best authors in Australia today – and they are among the best in the world – are Alexis Wright, Gerald Murnane and Kim Scott. I would certainly drop everything to read new books by them, but my favourite authors are Marie Munkara, Elizabeth Tan, Claire G Coleman and … Jane Rawson. So here we have Jane’s latest (and next month Claire G Coleman’s publishers release her latest, Enclave). Life is good.

We used to see Jane Rawson here blogging, I see her on Twitter, and I don’t have it in me to call her Rawson. Jane’s ‘About’ says she lives in Tasmania – for some reason I pictured her living in Williamstown (Melbourne) – and that she grew up in Canberra. Her first two novels were set in Melbourne, this and her previous novel are set in and around Port Adelaide which she seems to know quite well.

I used to know Port Adelaide quite well myself. I’ve lived and worked for trucking companies based there. Even now, or at least when I’m running Melbourne-Perth, I routinely drop into the trucking/industrial suburbs immediately east of the Port. For some reason though I’ve only rarely been to the residential suburbs, Semaphore, Largs Bay, Taperoo, Osborne, on the peninsula above the Port, where the four young women who are the protagonists of this novel grow up. (If you want to see the real Port Adelaide watch Bad Boy Bubby – warning this movie includes incest and death by cling-wrap). Ok, that’s enough wasting space, but I do like seeing geography-I-know in my fiction.

I have written as recently as last week about Australian SF set in dystopian near-futures. Well this is SF set in a dystopian near-past; a reimagined 1930s and 40s where the politics of the New Guard become dominant and Australia sides with Germany and Japan in WWII.

Jane’s particular focus here is not the War, but to explore the father knows best philosophy of that time – and of two of our three past prime ministers! – if it were to be further hardened in law so that women were unable to work, were forced into marriage and child-bearing.

A History of Dreams starts out innocently enough, with schoolgirls Margaret and her younger sister Esther being bullied by boys on the train home from Adelaide Technical High. Matt, a senior boy Margaret has looked up to (and helped with his homework) all her life, fails to step in, but the boys are eventually dispersed by Margaret’s friend Audrey, a ‘revolutionary’ whose father is a trade union leader.

Margaret was well on her way to securing her spot at the top of the class and privately Esther expected Margaret would go on from Adelaide Tech to beome the world’s most famous lady palaentologist. If not her sister, who else would discover Australia’s first dinosaur skeleton? When she did, Esther would write an opera to celebrate the discovery.

The three girls form a ‘club’. Audrey reveals that she has been trained by her maiden great aunt, the latest in a long line of spinsters, to become a witch, able to put dreams in potions which when dropped in a drink induce dreams or nightmares. A fourth girl, Phyllis, who lives in much poorer circumstances than the other three, joins their group (initially maybe just for the cakes).

Margaret’s father refuses to let her go on to uni, and finds her a job as a clerk in a bookkeeper’s office until she is able to find herself a husband.

At this point I am thinking about Marie Munkara. This is an angry book, a satire on misogyny as Munkara’s are angry, satires on racism; and I am expecting a black comedy. In fact, I wonder now if that is what Jane was initially intending. But it gradually becomes something else, more dramatic, as the political situation worsens and the young women are variously raped, imprisoned, fall apart from each other, then slowly regather themselves to take their places in the resistance.

And then you cannot help but think of Charlotte Woods’ The Natural Way of Things; to think of the systemized misogyny Woods’ outback jail implies, which is here made explicit; to think of the escaped internees returning to the cities to fight back.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot. That’s for the author to reveal in her own good time, but it is totally believable, and the ‘witchery’ is properly woven in as any unusual power is in good SF (or SFF).

The story is told in the third person mostly from Margaret’s POV, but sometimes from the other girls’. The resistance find Margaret a job within the Public Service. Here she meets her new boss –

‘They tell me you’re very good,’ he said. ‘Personally, I don’t see why we need to get a woman involved. Plenty of excellent fellows here, perfectly capable of understanding what women want. But I’m sure they know what they’re doing upstairs.’ He smiled thinly at her.

In some ways this was the book for a month ago, before the federal election. But on the other hand what is now understood by ‘everyone’, how out of touch the Prime Minister was with women, how the government, the Liberal Party, was just one long chain of white male privilege from private school to university college to political office jobs to Cabinet, was back then barely spoken of.

Jane starts out with Phyllis reading PC Wren and no, not Beau Geste, but my favourite, the book which informed my adolescence, Beau Ideal. The whole point of Beau Ideal is to do the honourable thing, whatever the cost, a lesson which was lost on me when it came to the test, but which maybe Jane wants us to think about as the four heroines push through considerable adversity.

I guess I was hoping for another quirky Formaldehyde but authors have to be allowed to grow and explore, and Jane Rawson has done that here in a big way and has come up with a powerful book for our times.

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Jane Rawson, A History of Dreams, Brio Books, Sydney, 2022. 302pp.

see also my reviews of earlier Jane Rawson fiction:
A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, 2013 (here)
Formaldehyde, 2015 (here)
From the Wreck, 2017 (here)

Seven Fallen Feathers, Tanya Talaga

North America Project 2022

Seven Fallen Feathers documents the deaths of seven Indigenous high school students living away – a long way in most cases – from home to attend Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFC) in Thunder Bay, Ontario (Canada) in the years 2000-2011.

I listened to it a few weeks ago and then again for a few hours yesterday. I can’t pretend to have retained enough for a proper review, but this is a moving and important story and I will attempt to reconstruct it from the considerable resources of the internet.

Tanya Talaga is an experienced journalist and an Ojibwe woman “with roots in Fort William First Nation… Her great-grandmother, Liz Gauthier, was a residential school survivor. Her great-grandfather, Russell Bowen, was an Ojibwe trapper and labourer. Her grandmother is a member of Fort William First Nation, and her mother was raised in Raith and Graham, Ontario.” (About Tanya)

The book is divided into seven sections, one for each ‘fallen feather’ plus a couple of chapters to wind up. But throughout Talaga winds in background material. Northern Ontario sounds bleak, forests, snow and innumerable lakes, with small remote First Nations communities accessible only by seaplanes, or by long drives when the roads are open.

I gather most communities have schools up to Year 8, but beyond that it’s either correspondence or living away from home – boarding with families, not residential colleges – to attend DFC. Sadly, it is (or was) a condition of attending DFC that the kids come from a remote community. Hence if a parent set up home in Thunder Bay to support their child then they no longer met the condition for attending the school.

Indigenous education fell, and maybe still falls, under Federal Native Affairs (however it is now named) while the education of settler children was a function of Provincial governments. As is the way with Native Affairs bureaucracies everywhere, even if the spending per student was nominally the same, most of it went on (white) administration, and Indigenous schools were woefully underfunded compared with settler schools.

Talaga’s thesis is that the Canadian government engaged in the systematic elimination of First Nations culture – cultural genocide – and for all their good words/good intentions now, that is ongoing. Treaties, which First Nations leaders entered into under duress, were not honoured; the 1876 Indian Act restricted First Nations people to mostly remote reservations and enforced the attendance of of all children up to 16 years at one of 137 residential schools, run by churches, and now notorious for physical and sexual violence, inadequate food and clothing, and rampant disease, especially TB which might easily have been controlled; even with the closure of the residential schools, Indigenous education has been inadequately funded.

To date, according to conservative estimates from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, approximately 4,100 to 6,000 children died amid abuse and neglect while in the residential school system, which ran until 1996.

CTV News, 1 June 2021 (here)

DFC, with 150 students over Years 9-12, was opened by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council on the site of an old residential school in Thunder Bay in 2000. Within weeks of the opening the first of the seven, Jethro Anderson, was reported missing. His body was subsequently found in the Kam River, bruised and with what appeared to be cigarette burns to his face. In what became an unvarying trend, Thunder Bay police reported, prior to any possibility of investigation, that there was no suspicion of foul play.

The other six are –
Curran Strang, 2005, found in the McIntyre River
Paul Panacheese, 2006, collapsed and died at home
Robyn Harper, 2006, died of acute alcohol poisoning
Reggie Bushie, 2007, found in the McIntyre River. He had been drinking on the banks of the river with his brother Ricki, who came to, in the river, with no memory of how he got there
Kyle Morrisseau, 2009, found in the McIntyre River
Jordan Wabasse, 2011, found in the Kam River

Talaga writes sympathetic accounts of each of the seven and their families. She provides instances of Indigenous kids reporting being beaten up by white kids and of being tossed into waterways. She documents ongoing racist harassment; taunts and rubbish thrown from passing cars; one Indigenous woman dying of injuries from a lump of metal thrown at her stomach. Over and over we run into indifferent police and coroners inquiries with all white juries.

There is clearly a problem with children 14-18, too far from parental love and supervision, with too many opportunities for drinking and smoking. As in Australia, concerned elders patrol the streets at night and do what they can. As in Australia, Indigenous kids out after dark are treated by the police with suspicion rather than compassion or understanding.

Provincial police were brought in to redo the investigations. To no effect. An inquest into the seven deaths made open findings about the causes of the deaths and 145 recommendations. Children are now brought home for a week mid-term; and new, more local schools are opening. I was left unsure about whether there were local Provincial high schools that Indigenous kids might attend.

In 2017, two more dead teenagers—Tammy Keeash and Josiah Begg—were pulled from different parts of the McIntyre River within two weeks of each other.

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Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers, House of Anansi Press, Toronto, 2017. Audible, 2018, Read by Michaela Washburn. 9 hours.

Christian Morrisseau, an Ojibwa ‘woodland’ artist, painted Seven Fallen Feathers in about 2016, after the inquest into the deaths of his son Kyle and six other First Nations students in Thunder Bay in the years 2000-2011 (Tanya Talaga, Ojibwa artist paints Seven Fallen Feathers to ease pain, remember seven young lives, Toronto Star)

see also:
Marcie/Buried in Print’s review (here)
Lisa/ANZLL’s Indigenous Lit page/Canada and the Americas (here)


I don’t get the impression anyone is attempting to read along with my North America Project. Just as well! Next month (June) my review will be of James Baldwin’s Just Above my Head (1979) which I happened on in the library and have already listened to (yes Emma, it was excellent). July WILL be Their Eyes were watching God (1937), Zora Neale Hurston. I already have Life Among the Qallunaat, Mini Aodla Freeman, so that leaves me four more to find (I also have Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany, but I think that’s a project for another day).

Also in June, for Naomi’s Literary Wives Club, I have The Sentence (2021) by Louise Erdrich to read – I know! What a waste to read a book for only one challenge when it might easily cover two or three.

A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Jane Rawson

I posted this review of A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists in 2015, my first year as a blogger. I had the sense to link to both Sue/WG’s and Lisa/ANZLL’s reviews, so that made two comments and Jane, then a fellow blogger, made three.

Jane Rawson has written a couple of quirky novellas since, though I think that Formaldehyde (2015) got very little attention. A shame, as it is very funny. Her latest, A History of Dreams has apparently hit the shelves already, though not at Crow Books in Perth where I am still waiting for my order to be filled. A review will follow as soon as I have a copy in my hands.

The reason for this repost is that once again I find myself too busy to write. But Milly has finished moving, and in fact has already sold her old house, accepting an offer the first day it was shown. So that’s the end of that distraction. I’ve caught up with at least some of my bookkeeping; and though I’m still doing one trip a week to make up for the time I took off in March/April I’m hoping that by filling a space with this re-posting I can have my North America read for May, Seven Fallen Feathers, by Tanya Talaga, written up later this week


Among my many uni first years I luckily included a year of Philosophy which, for me at least, provides a way into understanding this wonderful first novel. A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) sets out as pure near-future dystopian SF and morphs into something much more interesting and original.

Rawson makes clear from the beginning that our heroine, Caddy, is in a state of despair at the loss of her home “down by the dirty river, their neighbours a cluster of gigantic, carefully-lettered oil holding tanks”, her cat and her husband Harry. One day when Caddy has ridden her bike into town, a fire breaks out near the tanks, the power supply and therefore the water pressure fail and “[s]he felt the whole earth shake when the tanks went up. She thought it was a terrorist bomb down at the train station, though there’d been nothing like that since 2014.” Caddy heads back towards the fire, “Harry would need her” but “[t]he trees were on fire along the edge of Footscray Road, and by the time she had reached within a kilometre of home there was nothing but black”.

And so, in a couple of pages we are located in time, the near future, in space, the inner western suburbs of Melbourne, and in atmosphere, a time of failing infrastructure, of rising temperatures, and of a growing and displaced underclass.

Caddy lives in a humpy on the banks of the river near Newmarket – and it is one of the joys of reading a novel set in your own home town that the locations are so easy to visualise – supporting herself through prostitution and small scale bartering. There is only a small central cast, all friends of, or at least with Caddy, Ray who buys and sells stuff including his friends, Jason, a street kid, Peira who runs an inner city bar, Lanh, an internet entrepreneur, and Sergeant Fisk from the UN relief force (ie. Melbourne is a place which needs help). Caddy moves through the underside of the city, buying and selling and being sold, becomes ill, finds that the river has flooded and washed away her humpy, and is assisted by Fisk, to whom she finds she is strangely attracted.

Meanwhile Ray buys some heavily creased maps and finds that he is able to fall through the creases into other places, in space and eventually, in time, initially places on opposite folds of the map but increasingly a no-place which he learns is called Suspended Imaginums, the place our imaginings go when we stop thinking about them. There is a reference at this point to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and I’m thinking oh no, not more post modern magic bullshit but Rawson is cleverer than that.

Ray takes that wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, within Suspended Imaginums, and finds himself in San Francisco, in 1997, and there bumps into two characters, Sarah and Simon, whose story we have been following in a sidebar so to speak. They have accepted the task of seeing the whole of the USA by dividing it into 25 foot squares and standing in each and every one, which turns out to be the same as a story imagined and partially written by Caddy. And this is where the philosophy cuts in.

Way back in 1971 my course, under the great Max Charlesworth, included Bishop Berkely (1685-1783) who posited that there is no way to confirm that the material world exists and that therefore we may well all be thoughts in the mind of God. I liked this but not being a god-botherer thought (and think) that it is more likely that the thoughts are in my mind, not God’s. A modern version of Berkely’s “immaterialism” is put forward by Nick Bostrom (1973- ) who shows that with computing power expanding exponentially, it is inevitable that at least one society, and maybe that one is ours, will exist as a simulation running on computers.

Hence, in my reading, Rawson implies a universe which depends entirely on Caddy’s imagination, an entirely believable universe but one in which perhaps the postulates, the underpinnings of the simulation, haven’t been fixed as well as they should be and ‘normality’ has begun to fray.

One last thing, don’t be misled by the prize for SF writing. I have read SF incessantly since those long ago uni days and, on the evidence of this book, Rawson is one of those writers like my favourite Williams, Burroughs and Gibson, who write on the edge of what is possible in ‘mainstream’ fiction. Unmade Lists is not Fantasy, is not Space Opera, is definitely not genre fiction. Read it and see.

 

Jane Rawson, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Transit Lounge, 2013

See also: reviews by Whispering Gums (here) and ANZ Lit Lovers (here).

Those Who Perish, Emma Viskic

Back in the 1950s, which sometimes still feels like yesterday, ‘people’ would complain, about Doris Day movies, that breaking into song at critical moments was ‘unrealistic’. It took me a long time to understand that musical theatre was an art form with particular rules into which the story was made to fit, and longer to realise that all modes of story telling have rules which of course skillful story tellers modify as they go along.

What brought this to mind today was the extraordinary, “unrealistic” – for ‘real’ life, not for thrillers – number of violent deaths which deaf PI Caleb Zelic has to deal with over the course of this novel. I’m sure action thrillers are also an art form, but killing for art’s sake is not a concept that turns me on.

Nevertheless, except for one sequence which seemed to me was going to be all ‘action’, I listened all the way through to the end and in places even experienced mild enjoyment. One of the great improvements in crime fiction over time has been the increased emphasis on character development, and that is the case here.

Caleb Zelic lives in Melbourne but his Indigenous wife comes from a fictional Victorian coastal town, three and a half hours away, population 3,000, with a small, habitable island nearby. Let’s deal with the geography first (non-Victorians can skip the next para.)

The town is probably based on a mix of Port Fairy and Warrnambool: the distance is right; there’s a fishing fleet; Port Fairy is about that size; Warrnambool is bigger but the Framlingham Mission – a ‘miss.’ is mentioned – is nearby; and so on. Neither has an island, though the uninhabited Lady Julia Percy Is. is down the coast from Port Fairy; and the ferry which plays a central part in the story is clearly based on the cable drawn ferries over the Murray River that would sink if ever put to sea.

The next issue to get out of the way is cultural appropriation. WG, I’m sure, would applaud Viskic for using Aboriginal characters – Zelic’s wife, Kat, his mother in law, Mick, his friend and neighbour – in important roles in the story. For once I tend to side with her, though I think Viskic goes a little too far in describing Kat’s eagle totem, the cultural significance of mutton birds, stuff like that.

The other ‘cultural’ idea which slides along is the significant Yugoslav community in Australia. Viskic herself has a ‘Dalmatian’ father (Wiki). Zelic’s father’s ancestry is unstated and his sternness, the failure to acknowledge/express feelings isn’t restricted to (former) Yugoslavs.

Melanie, meanwhile is going “deaf PI, deaf PI, how does that work?” I can only imagine Viskic has a deaf (indeed a Deaf) family member. Caleb had meningitis at 5 years which destroyed his hearing. Despite the opposition of his father, he was taught Auslan and attended Deaf school, and is a member of the Deaf community in Melbourne. He insists on meeting hearing friends and informants in a Deaf community cafe, convincingly described.

His brother and his wife are both fluent in Auslan, but he deals with others, and of course his job involves a great deal of listening, by lip-reading with the aid of hearing aids which inflict on him high levels of tinnitus. His deafness is an element in nearly every interaction in the novel, and is very well done.

So, on to Those Who Perish (2022), the fourth in a series – don’t genre novels always hunt in series – featuring Caleb Zelic and his (recovering) drug addict brother Anton.

Kat, an artist, is living with her parents in ____ Bay, which is also the town Caleb and Anton grew up in, surrounded by family, while she sees out the last 8 weeks or so of her pregnancy.

Anton is in a rehabilitation clinic on the island. At the beginning of the novel Caleb has received an anonymous text stating that his brother is in danger and has rushed to the Bay where he discovers his brother pinned down by a sniper on the beach. He rescues him by crashing a tip truck, conveniently parked nearby with the keys in the ignition, into the toilet block in which the sniper is concealed.

A dead man is fished from the sea, shot through the forehead. He turns out to be another patient from the rehab. facility. Caleb spends the next few weeks mostly on the island, thinking up reasons why he shouldn’t tell the police what’s going on, as more people are shot, including the local policeman; surviving (by the skin of his teeth, of course) numerous attempts on his own life; and also thinking up new ways to piss off his wife who clearly loves him, while fighting off the temptations of the island’s token blonde beauty of loose virtue.

There’s also a totally irrelevant subplot about Caleb being asked to solve the mystery of who is publishing incriminating photos of members of the local football team; which leads him to having a long discussion, for no logical reason, with his doctor mother in law about bent dicks. And no, the comic subplot doesn’t merge with the serious murder plot in the last chapter, as you might expect, but is ‘solved’ in an unnecessary epilogue.

I don’t review crime fiction often but I listen to far too many. This one was at least Australian, though the Victorian element was not up there with, say Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh. The characters were interesting; Caleb’s inability to not be jealous of Kat’s handsome, Indigenous, smooooth workmate was totally believable; the crime plot was maybe 6 out of 10 (the comic subplot was 3/10). Add it to your list Melanie, I’d be interested to hear what you say about Viskic’s treatment of deafness.

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Emma Viskic, Those Who Perish, 2022 (Book might not be out yet), read by Lewis Fitz-Gerald

Melanie/Grab the Lapels doesn’t (yet) have a heading for Deaf.Lit but here is her latest review: Deaf & Sober by Betty G Miller

The Red Witch, Nathan Hobby

Back in 2015, when MST told me she had started a blog, Adventures in Biography, I started following the people she was following – Whispering Gums, ANZLitLovers, Nathan Hobby (then A Biographer in Perth), The Resident Judge, Stumbling through the Past, Historians are Past Caring (Marion Diamond and my favourite blog name ever). They were kind enough to follow me when I started blogging and soon, mostly of course through WG and ANZLL, I had met all of you.

It has been a great privilege to follow the progress of Michelle (MST) and Nathan as their books, first Michelle’s and now Nathan’s, in 2015 only a gleam in their eyes, have made it through to publication.

Before I link to my review on the AWWC site, I want to update you on my ongoing interest in Prichard’s trip to Turee Creek in 1926 to gather the material for the novel Coonardoo, which I first wrote about in one of my earliest posts Ventured North by Train and Truck (1 Jul, 2015).

From The Red Witch I get that KSP’s husband, Hugo Throssell, had worked on neighbouring station Ashburton, in the Peak Hill region, before WWI. And it was the Ashburton Road, past Peak Hill that I travelled last week, taking me to within about 50 km of Turee Creek. Nathan writes, “Joe Maguiure [Turee’s owner] described the location of Turee in a letter to a British newspaper: ‘We are just 198 miles from Peak Hill, our nearest post office. Our nearest neighbour is 80 miles away, our nearest railway 267, and nearest port 300 miles …'”

I can only imagine Maguire was prone to exaggeration. And that Prichard was mistaken when she wrote (and her son Ric later repeated) that she “travelled four hundred miles beyond the end of the railway” (Meekatharra according to Ric, who was at the time aged 4) in the station’s T-model Ford Truck to reach Turee Creek.

The distance from Meekatharra to Turee is near enough 320 km (200 miles). Peak Hill is roughly half way, so 100 miles. The nearest ports, Carnarvon or Onslow (KSP went home via Onslow), might be “300 miles”, they’re about 400 km/250 miles as the crow flies.

I was hoping Nathan would find something to clear up this little obsession of mine, but sadly, not.


The-Author-3-225x300 by Bill Holloway

A comprehensive literary biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) is long overdue. We, Nathan’s fellow bloggers, have waited long years through his PhD, fatherhood, being taken up by Melbourne University Press, and finally a year’s delay due to ‘Covid’, for this month to arrive. We have learnt a lot about Prichard in the meanwhile, but that doesn’t compare with finally seeing the book in the hands of readers. Read on …

Shikasta, Doris Lessing

Shikasta’s full title is “Re Planet 5, Shikasta, Personal psychological historical documents relating to the visit by Johor (George Sherban), Emissary (Grade 9) 87th of the Last Period of the Last Days”.

Shikasta is Earth, which for eons was bathed in goodness by the system known as Canopus, but the forces of Shammat (Satan) became ascendant and Shikasta descended into squalor and misery, which Johor, who is immortal, as we were once also, witnesses and reports back on until the Last Days, World War III.

Let me be clear at the outset, that yes, this is a very Old Testament view of the world, but it is not religious in the way that CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy is for instance.

That said, Lessing has dead people lining up in Zone 6 (Purgatory?) to return to the land of the living. Johor himself passes backwards and forwards through Zone 6 to go home to/return from Canopus; the last time not as himself, but choosing to be reborn as George Sherban, who grows to become something approaching the new Messiah at the End of Days.

Doris Lessing (1919-2013) is one of the greats. I have loved everything of hers that I have read. The big question is how much of it have I understood? Wikipedia says that her fiction “is commonly divided into three distinct phases”: Communist (1944-56), Psychological (1956-69) and Sufism (1970s). I have no way of knowing if this is correct. In any case, Lessing continued writing up till 2007 (when she was 88).

Shikasta (1979) marks a change in her output to encompass Science Fiction, a step which as you can imagine put a lot of literary noses out of joint. It is a dense work and very difficult to read – maybe I should have first read the Short Introduction to Sufism – and yet I also found it difficult to put down.

The text mainly takes the form of reports back to Canopus of the decline in the ‘natives’ (us) over eons. But the ‘agents’, mostly Johor, tell stories with enough detail and personality in them to hold our interest.

One envoy describes Noah’s flood: “Well before the inundation the Davidic tribe was on safe ground … in the area that is the subject of this report, the rain continued for nearly two months… It was necessary to make a ‘pact’ with them that this visitation of the Gods would not occur again.” And then his next report begins –

Since my last visit, twenty-one cities have been established in the old flood areas… Trade flourishes between the cities and as far as the eastern areas of the main landmass, its Northwest fringes, the northern parts of Southern Continent 1, the isolated Northern Continent.

It helps to have a map or a globe – for most of the novel you have to make your own connections between the ‘reports’ and the world as we know it. So, the ‘Northwest fringes’ is Europe, Southern Continent 1 is Africa (I don’t think Australia is ever mentioned) and the ‘isolated Northern Continent’ is North America.

The first third of the novel describes our decline – from the idyllic, at one with nature to grubby, desperate townspeople – and the increasing influence of Shammat, in mostly general terms. The next third is vignettes of people, Individuals One through Eight, in the aftermath of WWII. Some become terrorists or criminals. Eight is a servant girl, abandoned by the family to whom she had given herself.

Such a female, often to the detriment of her own children, whom she may even have to abandon, may be the prop, the stay, the support, the nourishment of an entire family, and perhaps for all her life. For her working life, for such a servant may be turned out in old age without any more than what she came with. Yet she may have been the bond that held the family together.

Which reflects, I think, Lessing’s upbringing in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

The last third is easier reading, the story of George Sherban, Johor reborn, told mostly by his sister, as he grows and is educated through childhood, to become leader of the world’s young people – as the Chinese become the master race – culminating in the trial of the White Race for their crimes against the Dark Races, before hundreds of delegates in an ancient ampitheatre in Greece

All of the second night’s session was taken up by representatives from South America, young men and women from the Indian tribes. Thirty of them. Several were wasted with disease…

The indictment was even more powerful than that of the Indian from the United States, because the events described were more recent. Some of the victims stood before us . . .

The incursion of Europe into South America. The conquest of brilliant civilizations through rapacity, greed, guile, trickery. The savagery of Christianity. The subjection of the Indians. The introduction of Black people from Africa, the slave trade.

This is an astonishing work, a largely successful attempt by a great writer to create an allegory of the whole of human history in one novel. Subsequently expanded to the five books of the Canopus in Argos series.

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Doris Lessing, Shikasta, first pub. Jonathan Cape, London, 1979 (My edition, pictured, HarperCollins, 2002). 448pp.

The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich

North America Project 2022

This is an area in which I am a novice, so we’ll start at the beginning. Louise Erdrich (1954 -) “is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians [known as Métis in Canada], a federally recognized tribe of the Anishinaabe (also known as Ojibwe and Chippewa)” from North Dakota (map)(Wiki).

The Métis are of mixed Indigenous and French (‘Voyageur’) ancestry, becoming a distinct group by the mid-19th century, during the fur trade era. I touched on this during my review of RM Ballantyne’s The Young Fur Traders, which is set in the 1840s in the Canadian states over the border from North Dakota.

Erdrich is of course a successful and well-known author, who has written 18 or so novels, seemingly all set in one or two fictional North Dakota Indigenous communities. The Plague of Doves (2008) is the first of three in the ‘Justice trilogy’ – the other two are The Round House (2012) and LaRose (2016).

Let’s get ‘the plague of doves’ out of the way. The novel consists of a series of stories over the space of a hundred or so years, told by four present-day narrators. So we begin with Evelina, the central character, telling her 100 year old grandfather, Mooshum’s story of when he was an altar boy for his Catholic priest step-brother. The town was blanketed in doves which ate everything and which the townspeople would trap, shoot, eat until they were sick of them.

The doves of this legend are Passenger Pigeons “which migrated in enormous flocks, constantly searching for food, shelter, and breeding grounds, and was once the most abundant bird in North America, numbering around 3 billion, and possibly up to 5 billion.” They are now extinct.

Mooshum then 12 or 13, runs off with his best friend, a girl, into the badlands, where they find a protector and after some years marry and return home. When the novel begins Mooshum is a widower living with Evelina’s family and Evelina is a teenager.

The stories which Mooshum, and his brother, Shamengwa, tell Evelina and Evelina’s ‘present-day’ story all slowly reveal connections, this is after all a relatively small community. So Evelina’s ‘boyfriend’ in primary school is Corwin Peace, who fades in and out of the narrative as Evelina becomes an adult, but for instance he is saved from juvenile delinquency by Shamengwa who teaches him to play the violin (and the violin has its own, complicated story).

The story around which all other stories revolve occurred when Mooshum was young. A white farming family is slaughtered. Mooshum and some friends are first on the scene a couple of days later. They discover a baby has survived and they give it some milk. Elements in the white community get up a lynching party and three men/boys with Moochum are hanged but he is spared.

Evelina then has to deal with the fact that her favourite teacher at the convent school is the niece of two men in the lynching party.

The second narrator, the Judge, first tells the story of the founding of the town, Pluto, which is on land illegally carved out of an Indian reservation; and then his story begins to run into Evelina’s as he and Evelina’s aunt become lovers and then husband and wife.

The third narrator, Marn Wolde’s story appears disconnected for a while. She runs off from home with a preacher, Billy Peace and they build up a following elsewhere. But eventually they are back in Pluto, and Billy establishes his congregation on her family land. When that relationship comes to a bloody end we find Marn and Evelina working in the same diner.

I probably have some of this out of order, as I no longer have access to the book which I listened to first on the way over to Melbourne and then again on the way home (and loved it both times).

The fourth and final narrator is Dr. Cordelia Lochren, who it turns out is the baby who survived the massacre. Though somewhere in there, Evelina gets at least one more go as she drops out of college, begins working in the state mental institution, where she has a breakdown and becomes a voluntary inmate. Until Corwin comes to visit her and they walk out together.

I was happiest with The Plague of Doves as Evelina’s coming of age, some of the other stuff I found distracting. But Erdrich obviously intends it to be more. Many readers seem to see the murder and lynching as central – that the main story is of how 80 years later a whole community still revolves around the family killed, the lynchers and the lynched.

What strikes me most is what a middle-class book this is. These are college educated towns people, teachers, lawyers, social workers, doctors. This is not a bad thing, but it is a long way from the fiery, underclass fiction of Marie Munkara say. But as in Munkara, there is a simmering sense of underlying injustice, of isolation from the outside, white world; and also of the links, of parentage, of action, acknowledged and unacknowledged, between members of the community, white and Indigenous.

Erdrich’s writing doesn’t fire me up. From that point of view I much preferred last month’s Nalo Hopkinson. But she writes a complex, involving story which I really must read again, and its sequels.

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Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves, 2008. Harper Audio read by Kathleen McInerney, Peter Francis James. 11 hours.

Upcoming books for North America Project 2022
May: Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers
June: Zora Neale Thurston, Their Eyes were watching God