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)