Jack Davis, Part II

2017 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers

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Jack Davis (1917-2000), as we saw in my review of his childhood memoir, A Boy’s Life (here), had a normal rural working class upbringing in those years of scarcity prior to World War II, with just a few months at the Moore River Native Settlement in 1932 to remind him of his status as a non-white. The memoir ends in the 1940s with him droving in the Gascoyne, arid country, probably given over to sheep in those days, 1,000 km north of Perth, while one of his brothers and some of his school mates went away to war.

In the 50 pages Tony Hughes-d’Aeth devotes to Davis in his monumental (600pp) Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt, he gives a solid account of the dispersal of the Noongar – the Indigenous people of southwest WA – first by the pastoral industry in the 1800s and then by the transition to wheat farming in the 1900s. In the years before widespread mechanisation Aboriginal labour was vital, though generally unmentioned in rural histories. After WWII Aboriginal people, both Noongar and those from up north (like Davis’ parents), often dumped in the south west via the ‘Native Settlements’ at Carrolup and Moore River, and more and more often unemployed, settled on the outskirts of country towns.

Davis’ mother, after the death of his father, had gone to live with her sister at Brookton, 140 km east of Perth, where the jarrrah forested Darling Ranges merge into the gently rolling hills and open plains of the WA wheatbelt, and there she married into the local Indigenous Bennell family. H-d’A quotes Davis:

Reserves were small useless parcels of land left over from the great land-grab. Once the property needs of the farming community and its town had been met, a few discarded acres would be set aside as a reserve for Aborigines. It seldom had any economic value and certainly never had sufficient natural resources to support a traditional Aboriginal lifestyle. Itinerant labouring work was the only means of support an Aborigine could expect …

Davis lived for a time at the Brookton reserve both before and after the War, and through his connection with the Bennells was introduced into Noongar culture. In passing, H-d’A comments on Nene Gare’s The Fringe Dwellers (my review) and adds the information that Gare’s husband was with the Dept of Native Affairs, and that was the origin of her material, though she was also friends with Indigenous writer, Alice Nannup.

Davis had apparently begun writing poetry as early as his Moore River days. In 1937 he had a poem accepted by the Carnarvon Northern Times but it was never printed. Davis blamed racial discrimination and thereafter wrote only “for my own amusement”. Finally, in 1970, when he was 53 and running the Aboriginal Centre in Beaufort St, Perth, four decades of Davis’ poetry were collected in The First Born and other poems with a long preface based on the transcript of a biographical interview with Davis by the novelist Richard Beilby, and a ‘Bibbulmun’ (which I think is a Noongar sub-group though the two words sometimes appear interchangeable. I’m sure Daisy Bates says Bibbulmun where we would now say Noongar) vocabulary. Oodgeroo (Kath Walker), a Noonuccal (Stradbroke Is., Qld) woman had published two books of poetry in the 1960s – the first by an Aboriginal person – with sensational success and this may have made publication of Davis’ work possible, or at least more likely.

The poems in Jack Davis’ The First Born are generally short, rhyming lyrics, often in the elegiac tonality that was one of the key-notes in Walker’s poems, although they did not follow hers – at least not yet – down the path of political manifesto …

There is a sense of every-day Aboriginal experience to Davis’ poems. I’ll quote one, ‘Camped in the Bush’ (note the truck!), set in the Ranges outside Perth on the main east-west railway line.

Over the campfire
The bat cries shrill
And a “semi” snarls
On the Ten Mile Hill

And the lonely whistle
Of the train at night,
Where my kingdom melted
In the city’s light

 In 1968 Kevin Gilbert had written The Cherry Pickers, the first play by an Aboriginal to be performed (in 1971), though Davis credits Kath Walker with his move into drama: “As early as 1972 I had been experimenting with theatre  … I had seen the script of a short play by Kath Walker …”. His first play, The Dreamers was staged at the Bunbury Arts Festival (a provincial city south of Perth) in 1972, leading to his ‘great trilogy’ of plays – Kullark (1979), The Dreamers (1982) and No Sugar (1985).

Kullark was performed alongside Dorothy Hewett’s The Man from Mukinupin. H-d’A writes:

Whereas in Hewett the Aboriginal characters perturb and destabilise the white town’s sense of itself, in Davis we see the perspective reversed for the first time – how white people and, in particular, white history looks to the Indigenous.

Davis’ plays are all realist dramas, the first two ostensibly played out in the present, but actually through speech and flashbacks demonstrating the intersection of family history and white settler racism. In The Dreamers, the dying Worru bridges the past and the future, and as he dies his language becomes more and more Noongar, illustrating the language’s survival against all odds.

No Sugar, set in 1929-34, is based on the removal and internment of a whole Noongar community, barely legal even under the 1905 Aborigines Act, from Northam, 100 km east of Perth and in the (conservative) Premier’s own electorate, to Moore River. The penalty for escaping from Moore River was six months in Fremantle Jail. The 1929 setting enables Davis to comment not just on the Depression, but also on the WA Centenary, and by implication on the (then) recent, 1979 state Sesquicentenary and upcoming ‘national’ 1988 Bicentenary celebrations (the 200th anniversary of the movement of the new British settlement from Botany Bay to Sydney Harbour, an event of little significance outside NSW and increasingly offensive to the Indigenous people forced along with the rest of us to celebrate it).

Interestingly, the infamous Chief Protector, A.O. Neville, is a character in the play as the action initially moves backwards and forwards between the Mundays and Millimurras at the town camp, the Northam police station, and the Chief Protector’s office. In the second act, the whole camp, 89 people, has been moved to Moore River. “The climax of the play has Jimmy Munday and the others subverting the ceremonial visit of A.O.Neville to Moore River on Australia Day 1934. Jimmy confronts Neville and [Superintendent] Neal, jeering them about the defeat of [Premier] Mitchell in his seat of Northam.”

Davis’ drama asks who was A.O. Neville ‘protecting’:

… the major beneficiaries of the “Protection” offered in the [1905] Act were the mainly white citizens of Western Australia, particularly those living in rural areas. In the emerging towns of the wheatbelt, the provisions of the Act were used to institute a form of apartheid in which Aboriginal people were kept out of the towns through curfews and other forms of soft or hard police power.

Hughes-d’Aeth concludes: “What Davis is able to do, better than anyone before or since, is to capture the complexity of Aboriginal policy as it affected the lives of thousands of people during the twentieth century.”

 

Jack Davis, No Sugar, Currency Press, Sydney, 1986
Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, A Literary History of the Wheatbelt, UWAP, Perth, 2017

Jack Davis Part I, A Boy’s Life (here)
see also: Mairi Neil’s review (here) of Jack Davis’ poetry in her blog Up the Creek with a Pen …
and my review of Kim Scott’s researching of his Noongar heritage, Kayang and Me (here)

I see in Hughes-d’Aeth’s Notes that there is a biography of Davis by Keith Chesson (211pp) which is also available as an audio book from WA Assoc’n for the Blind (Trove)

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A Boy’s Life, Jack Davis

2017 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers

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Jack Davis (1917-2000) was a poet, a playwright, a Noongar man, and an indigenous rights campaigner. His plays, including No Sugar, his best known, are studied in Western Australian schools but I first came to hear of him only a couple of years ago. Reviewing Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence I wrote: “[The girls] were held at the East Perth Girls’ Home (the author says this is now the Jack Davis hostel, to which I cannot find any reference, though Jack Davis seems to have been an Indigenous writer and activist whom I should follow up)” -and now I am.

Davis’ parents had both been taken from their families up north, but by 1917 his father had his citizenship papers and was working at Waroona not far south of Perth, so young Jack was born prosaically in King Edward Memorial Hospital (equivalent to Royal Women’s in Melbourne) and not “delivered by Aboriginal women in the glow of a campfire” as he might have wished.

However, a quote on the second page marks the place where all accounts of Indigenous life in Australia must start until we whites acknowledge and internalize the great wrongs that we have done and are doing:

[My father] remembers holding his boss’ horse outside the Roebourne police station while his boss went to obtain a permit which gave him permission to shoot troublesome blacks on his property. The cost of the permit was one shilling.

Jack’s father came south and married, with jobs in Waroona and Lake Clifton before settling in Yarloop, a timber milling and railway town between Perth and Bunbury. Jack was the fourth of 10 children and grew up with a happy home life, his father with a job at the mill, no more impoverished than the people around them during the 1920s and 30s, with access to good hunting in the jarrah forests of the Darling Escarpment,  a Black family in a mostly white community and no mention of racial tension.

These are stories of going to school, growing up in any Australian rural town, any loving mother with a big family, getting into scrapes and all the rest of it, at a time when roads were unpaved and cars were rare. The writing is spare and cheerful. The stories are short and not as detailed as Norman Lindsay’s for instance, nor as sickly-sentimental as Miles Franklin’s Childhood at Brindabella. I had a look too, at the opening chapters of Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life, which I haven’t read for a while, but again there was more detail and more continuity than in Davis’ short (150pp) book of stories.

In the last few chapters Jack  falls into the snares of the infamous ‘Protector’ of Aboriginals, A.O.Neville. When Jack is 14 Neville offers him and his next older brother, Harold ‘places’ at Moore River native Settlement to ‘learn farming’. Mrs Davis accepts and the boys make their way there via the Home in East Perth which was later to bear Jack’s name. The offer is of course a con and the boys are used as unpaid labour. As we know, conditions at Moore River were terrible:

One day two sixteen-year-old girls who tried to abscond from the settlement were caught, brought back and locked in the boob. Next day they were taken down to the storeroom where they were both laid over sacks of flour and Mr Neal [the superintendent] flogged them with the cat until they wet themselves. He then ordered them to eat the flour.

Davis thinks superintendent was a tough job, but someone had to do it. After a few months, mostly in the outer camp with the adults, the boys were told to return home. A year or so later, the Depression really starting to bite, the older boys unable to find work, their father dies in an accident, and the family breaks up. Davis heads north and spends the war years droving in the Gascoyne.

Although Davis doesn’t say so, I think his father’s citizenship papers insulated the family from the worst effects of the 1905 Aborigines Act, but the fact that both parents were ‘stolen’ and the Act’s prohibition of ‘citizens’ consorting with Aboriginals meant that nearly all family connections were lost. Neville would claim of course that the Davis’ ‘normal’ family life was proof of the efficacy of this prohibition, but the personal cost was enormous and Jack only discovered he had family connections in the Brookton area east of Perth when author Sally Morgan ran across part of his mother’s family tree during research into someone else, in the latter years of his life.

At this point I have less insight into Davis’ writing than I had expected. Perth academic and editor of Westerly, Tony Hughes d’Aeth, has just released Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt which I will review at length ‘soon’, but it contains a chapter on Davis (and another on Facey). For those of you not up on WA geography, the Wheatbelt is a belt of semi-arid country south of a line from north of Geraldton to east of Esperance, but not including the high rainfall jarrah forests of the south west corner. For reasons probably to do with rainfall, that outer boundary roughly coincides with the outer boundary of Noongar country.

For the next few days I am working up the Pilbara coast, but when I get back I’ll put up a part II on No Sugar (the script, I haven’t seen a performance) and d’Aeth’s chapter on Davis.

 

Jack Davis, A Boy’s Life, Magabala Books, Broome, 1991

see also Mairi Neil’s review (here) of Jack Davis’ poetry in her blog Up the Creek with a Pen …
Jack Davis, No Sugar, Currency Press, Sydney, 1986
Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, A Literary History of the Wheatbelt, UWAP, Perth, 2017

Storyland, Catherine McKinnon

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Storyland (2017) as you might expect, is about stories, about the stories that make up this land, this nation. How they are made, how they are told, when they are told, why they are told, what they tell. Is itself a linked series of stories ranging in time from White Settlement into the future and back again. And rightly, McKinnon restricts herself to those stories that are hers to tell. White stories, settler stories, and above all, the story of the land itself.

In 1796 Bass and Flinders and young Will Martin take a small boat south from Sydney Cove to explore the coast. They are afraid to make landfall because the ‘Indians’ might be cannibals (see Behrendt). To pass the time Will orates the story of a sea-battle, a story he learned to tell ‘back home’, of a battle that Flinders as a young midshipman took part in. We book readers are reminded of the power of oral traditions.

A quarter of a century later, land is being cleared for farming. Labour is mostly convicts overseen by ex-convicts, ticket-of-leave men, though in this case the overseer is the NSW-born half brother of Will Martin. Hawker, the teller of this story, and Lambskin are the workers. McKinnon interrogates the myths of mateship – what happens if your mate doesn’t pull his weight? The ‘natives’ are no longer cannibals, but they threaten the crops. Yet:

When we were building the hut it was the chief’s nephew who showed us the paths through the forest to the cedar trees. He taught us how to strip the bark of the Couramyn to make a fishing line, showed us what berries not to eat. Once, when our traps had caught nothing, the nephew gave us kangaroo tail. He thought he could take corn in return… “That corn does not belong to me,” I explained. The nephew went away and the chief, with complete understanding of men’s desires, sent her back.

1900 and still in the lush farming country between the mountains and the sea south of Sydney, the Illawarra, though the coal mines and smelters that become synonymous with Wollongong and Port Kembla have started their inexorable spread. Lola with her brother and sister Mary and Abe are dairy farming on the shore of a lake . Jewell, their friend and neighbour, has been told by her father she “can’t work with no ignorant bastard girl like you, Lola, and with no half-castes like Mary and Abe.” Jewell draws pictures, another form of storytelling. “’I have to draw you like you is,’ Jewell says … ‘I got to draw the truth.’”  Jewell goes missing. Their aunt takes them to the camp of the local Aboriginals to get help. Abe is attacked by Jewell’s father.

Almost another century, and where the farms were is now housing and the lake’s a “cesspit”, clear water but the shores are black sludge. Bel is a 10 year-old whose vocation is to tell stories.

Uncle Ray says the lake was once full of fish and it was a refrigerator for everyone who camped on the banks in the olden Aborigine days before refrigerators.

Bel’s dad Jonathon is doing his PhD “on people in stories who tell stories you don’t believe”.  Bel and her friends Tarak and Isha come across an older girl, Kristie sleeping rough in Swamp Park. She says she is descended from Mary who “met my great-grandfather and he was like the son of this fierce Aboriginal warrior and they had a pile of kids together and one was my grandmother.” And so the stories link one to another, although probably place alone would have been enough. Ned, Kristie’s boyfriend can ‘spin a yarn’, another story-teller, no-one says bull-shit artist but Kristie teaches them to lie to him, “Some people you can love, but never trust. Ned is one of those people.”

We go off into the future, the near future and the far future at the same time, before making our way back again.

Nada, I want to publicly membank what we say to each other today for our Storyland project.
Ah.
If you don’t wish to be publicly membanked you have that right. If you choose not to participate your treatment here will not be affected. Nada, may I membank?
Nada nods her head.
Nada, I can’t go ahead until you say yes. You must verbally agree. This is a contract.

Nada’s story is that her community up on the escarpment above Lake Illawarra, her house sheltering under the 1,000 year old fig tree, has been destroyed in cyclone Frank.  When she finally makes her way back to the city she descends into a dystopia of food and fuel shortages, flooding and fighting. Kristie appears briefly, at the evac centre, and is shot. Back home, under the guidance of their neighbour Steve, the first Koori to command the Australian Army, they prepare to defend themselves.

Nada is a child knocked down by a car. Bel, Tarak, Isha, their ‘wolf’ dog Zeus rescue Kristie from Ned’s violence. A skeleton is dug up near the beach, the skeleton of a Kuradji, a ‘clever man’. His axe is missing, but we have seen it, in other stories.

Jewell is found.

Hawker kills the woman he has lain with, in the most horrible way imaginable.

Will Martin, Bass and Flinders eat a meal with the ‘Indians’.

Gulls circle above, and the fire spits. The fish is cooked. We sit and eat, pulling the flesh from the bones. We invite our friends to join us. They eat the same way we do. This is proof that they are not cannibals.

Though they continue to have their doubts. The three young men return from their adventures, preparing their stories for telling.

So what has McKinnon been saying with all these stories. That there were people on this land when we got here, they are still here, they never went away, and, I think, that we must learn how to be with them. And, maybe, slowly, we must learn to tell stories, earn the right to tell stories, to live stories, where the first people are Us or part of Us, and not Other.

 

Catherine McKinnon, Storyland, 4th Estate (Harper Collins), Sydney, 2017. My copy received from the publisher for review.

See also Lisa at ANZLitLovers’ review (here)

 

 

The Savage Crows, Robert Drewe

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The subject of The Savage Crows (1976) is the love life of a young man, Stephen Crisp, as he collects material for a thesis on the extermination of Tasmanian Aborigines – the Parlevar people – who after 50 years battling introduced diseases and frontier war, had been reduced from maybe 15,000 people down to a couple of hundred. In 1833 those few remaining tribespeople were persuaded by missionary George Robinson, acting on behalf of Lieutenant Governor George Arthur, to permit themselves to be removed to Flinders Island in Bass Strait, north of Tasmania.

The book has two completely distinct narrative streams – fragments of Crisp’s life up to the present where he is living alone in a flat whose toilet window overlooks a portion of Lavender Bay, Sydney Harbour; and the (imagined) journals of George Robinson as he makes his way around Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) as a ‘conciliator’. Both streams continue throughout the book and there is no marker when you step from one to the other. Although it is common these days for novels to contain both the story of a writer and the story being written, these two bear so little relation to each other that I found the switches annoying, rather than ‘experimental’ or ‘ambitious’ as claimed.

Crisp, as you might expect in a first novel, is a stand-in for Drewe himself, and lots of the material around Crisp’s early life in the leafy, upper-middle class Perth suburbs between the river and the sea, is familiar to readers of Drewe’s later memoir, The Shark Net (2000). Over the course of the novel we learn, not sequentially, that Crisp has an ex-wife and daughter; that he has a girlfriend, Anna; that his mother died young, some years earlier; and that he has a difficult relationship with his father and with his younger brother who has stayed in Perth to make money mining mug investors on the stock exchange, which is how most West Australians make their fortunes.

The two streams intersect briefly when Crisp, holidaying at his brother’s Dalkeith (Perth’s Toorak) house, tackles his brother, Geoff, about his racist jokes:

‘Why do it?’ he asked, sipping one of Geoff’s tawny ports. ‘Isn’t it a shade racist?’ The women had gone to bed. The dogs lay comatose at their feet, trembling at busy dreams.

‘Just for a laugh. Where’s you sense of humour?’ A propos of nothing, or something, Geoff said, ‘Ever rooted a coon, by the way?’

Crisp works his way through his relationship with Anna – at a party one of Geoff’s gyno friends points out that Anna is pregnant, but Crisp is oblivious; is divorced by his ex-wife; forges some sort of relationship with his father; and, finally, makes a visit to Tasmania and Flinders Island, where I suppose the two streams merge again, but not to any great effect.

The Robinson stream, the imagined journal, has a monotone quality, not quite as turgid as a real C19th journal, but not free-running narrative either. Robinson makes his way around Tasmania, accompanied by Truganini – famously the ‘last Tasmanian’ – and a small number of others from her language group, particularly another woman, Dray, and Truganini’s husband, Wooraddy.

My endeavours began on 30th March 1829 when I left Hobart Town at 9.30 am in a large whaleboat with six hands bound for Bruny Island lying close to the mainland due south…As I saw it … I had been placed in the vanguard of the movement for the amelioration of the natives…

Robinson’s plan is to befriend the Aboriginal inhabitants of Bruny Island, and to create a settlement for them with huts, vegetable gardens and a school. He is concerned to separate the locals from white settlers on the far side of the island who were “enticing the natives with food, clothing and tobacco for which the women were submitting to immoral practices”. In this he is less than successful and in any case the Aboriginals are nearly all wiped out by an unidentified disease.

The following year he makes up a party of half a dozen convicts and the four remaining Bruny Islanders to make contact with the Indigenous inhabitants of southern Tasmania, during which he undergoes various adventures, the purpose of which – I mean the author’s purpose – seems to be to demonstrate Robinson’s willingness to conciliate and learn rather than confront. Robinson develops a certain affection for Truganini, but Dray deserts the party and takes up with locals.

This is all in preparation for horrifying scenes of White bastardry, as shepherds massacre Aborigines and force them over a cliff:

A narrow path led down to the ledge; at its farmost reach was a dead-end – a high rock wall. Beneath the ledge was a drop of a hundred feet or more on to angular rocks stippled with brightly coloured lichens. The ledge was strewn with Toogee bodies – men, women and children lying among their scattered food baskets in a morass of blood and ripe fruit. The Dorsetman and the second Scot moved among them, swinging bodies over the cliff on to the rocks…

I remained there, gasping out prayers, as the shepherds flung the last mutilated bodies over the edge, collected their carbines and muskets and sauntered up the path to me. Below them lay the object of my endeavours, the Toogee tribe. Chamberlain led the way. ‘Morning sir,’ he said. ‘A bit of crow hunting for the company.’

As I understand it, Arthur, who had already instituted martial law so that it was legal to kill Aborigines, claimed to support Robinson but at the same time stepped up the war on the Indigenous population, a war amounting to genocide, with the ‘Black Line’ “in which 2200 civilians and soldiers formed a series of moving cordons stretching hundreds of kilometres across the island in order to drive Aboriginal people from the colony’s settled districts to the Tasman Penninsula, in the southeast” (Wikipedia). From there, 46 survivors, including Truganini, accompanied Robinson to Flinders Island. Their numbers rose to around 200 over the next couple of years as stragglers were rounded up, but declined thereafter due to disease and, no doubt, heartbreak.

A reader asked, after my post on Thea Astley’s The Kindness Cup (here), what other books there were from this period (the 1970s) on Aboriginal massacres. From what I could find, historian Henry Reynolds had begun documenting the War in Tasmania, and JJ Healy (who I discussed here) in Literature and the Aborigine in Australia (1978) was particularly tough on Rolf Boldrewood’s part in massacres in Victoria’s Western District and also discusses the Hornet Bank massacre (of whites) in 1857 and the part played by Rosa Praed’s family in the reprisals, and where this was reflected in her writing.

But as for novels, apart from The Savage Crows, the only others I could come up with that might come close were Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia (1938) and Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972). So I guess The Savage Crows is important for its subject matter, but in my opinion the execution, the forming of the two narrative streams into a coherent whole, leaves a bit to be desired.

 

Robert Drewe, The Savage Crows, William Collins, 1976 (my ed. Picador, 1987)

A Kindness Cup, Thea Astley

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A Kindness Cup (1974) is a short (150pp), powerful novel on the savagery that underlies white settlement in Queensland. Set in a fictional coastal town in the far north at the end of the C19th, it is a story of Aboriginal men casually murdered for no reason; of a town whose sugar industry is based on the slave labour of Pacific islanders; a town of mindless citizens, happy in their wilful ignorance; and above all, the story of the few white men who tried to help or speak up, bashed and sidelined.

I own a few Astleys and I guess I must have read them over the past 40 or so years, without retaining much, but this is the one that has stayed in my mind, the one that for me typifies her writing. Thea Astley (1925-2004) was born and educated in Queensland before moving to NSW with her husband in 1948. Without having read all her books, I get the impression that Queensland is at the heart of her writing. And I believe she writes so ferociously about Queensland in A Kindness Cup because so little had changed. Her fictional township is a perfect metaphor for Brisbane and Queensland in the venal, racist years of Joh Bjelke-Petersen and his coterie of corrupt cabinet ministers, police and businessmen.

The premise of the novel is that Dorahy, a classics teacher, has been invited back to a town reunion on the 20th anniversary of … I’m not sure we’re told, and about 18 years after a massacre of local Aborigines which he (imperfectly) witnessed. We proceed along a number of timelines at once. Dorahy making the six day voyage up the coast from Moreton Bay to attend the reunion; Dorahy teaching a class which includes the gentle Tim Jenner and the oafish Fred Buckmaster; Fred Buckmaster, a Trooper Lieutenant in the police, being grilled at an inquest into the massacre; the even more oafish Buckmaster père and the oily politician Sweetman threatening and blustering both ‘now’ and 20 years earlier; the seven days of the reunion; and so on.

Other characters who play a part are Boyd who prints the local newspaper and is philosophically opposed to Buckmaster and Sweetman, but mostly keeps his head down; Lunt a farmer on the edge of the district who is sympathetic to the local Indigenous people. Women in this novel are mostly in the background, there are just Kowaha, an Aboriginal woman friendly with Lunt and Dorahy, and who has a new baby daughter; and Gracie, a girl competed for by Tim and Fred, who goes on to become a professional singer down south, but returns for the reunion.When fights break out at a town meeting –

Gracie Tilburn, her red hair ablaze, rushes to the footlights and pleads for silence. It is so outrageous for a woman to assert herself among men, the hall is temporarily shocked and muted.

The massacre becomes inevitable when Buckmaster and Sweetman form the intention of ‘dispersing’, ie. shooting, the local Aborigines under the pretext that they had abducted, starved and abandoned a local (white) child, despite it being clear to everyone else that the child was lost, had been rescued by the tribe, had been unable to eat Aboriginal food, and had been returned to a place near her home.

Lunt warns the Aborigines, who are camping at a waterhole on his property, of the impending attack, and undertakes to care for a sick old man whom they are unwilling to leave behind. When Buckmaster finds them gone he approaches Lunt in a rage, shoots the Aboriginal man in his bed and lashes Lunt to him. By the time Lunt is discovered, days later, gangrene has set in in a minor wound in his leg and it has to be amputated.

Buckmaster orders his son, by now a policeman, to conduct a raid without waiting for a warrant or instructions, and a party is made up of troopers and townsmen. They find the tribe in the bush around a local peak, Mandarana, and fan out, herding them up to the top.

The world, the stupendous views, narrowed to a horror of shots and shouts and screams as they burst in upon the score of blacks herded into the inner circle of rocks. One spear caught Roy Armitage in the shoulder, but the others flew wide as the natives, awed by the bullet, became only a huddle of terrified flesh. They cringed against rocky shields…

It was truly time to make arrests, but Buckmaster had lost control of his men who went forward and in, shooting steadily and reloading and shooting until the ground was littered with grunting men and there was blood-splash bright upon the rocks…

‘Leave the gins!’ Sweetman roared in a moment of sanity. ‘Leave them!’

Kowaha breaks free from her fellows and leaps to her death holding her baby, who survives! Dorahy, Boyd and Tim Jenner and his father come up at that moment, having hoped to impede or at least bear witness to the ‘dispersal’.

Dorahy and Lunt are forced to leave town. The inquest uncovers Fred Buckmaster’s guilt and incompetence but, as is always the case in Queensland, exonerates him anyway. He too leaves town, to become a publican.

And so we come to the reunion. Sweetman tries to persuade Dorahy to forget his grievances,  “That’s all over now. So long ago no one remembers.” But Dorahy, old and frail, is determined to make a scene and ropes in Boyd and Lunt. The ending isn’t happy.

 

Thea Astley, A Kindness Cup, Penguin, Melbourne, 1984 (first published 1974)

see also reviews of the recent Astley biography: Karen Lamb, Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather, UQP, St Lucia, 2015; by Sue/Whispering Gums (here) and Lisa/ANZLitLovers (here)

The Last Runaway, Tracy Chevalier

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Tracy Chevalier (1962- ) is best known for her second novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999) set in C17th Holland. I listened to it some time ago and enjoyed it, but I haven’t seen the 2003 movie. The Last Runaway (2013) is her seventh (of eight) and is set in C19th America.

The plot is basically: Honor Bright, a Quaker woman in England is jilted by her fiancée and so decides to accompany her sister to America where the sister is to marry a former fellow townsman and Quaker who has established a business in a newly settled part of Ohio. Honor falls in with Belle, a milliner and an alcoholic, who is part of the Underground Railroad, sheltering and assisting the passage of runaway slaves from the South making their way to Canada. The biggest threat to the runaways is recapture by bounty hunters, of whom Belle’s brother Donovan is the most prominent.

After working for a while in the shop of her prospective brother in law, Honor marries into the Haymaker family, Quaker farmers in a nearby parish. The Quakers are anti-slavery but the Haymakers are frightened to assist runaways because they can be heavily fined under Federal law. Honor defies them and we go on from there.

I am interested that the date is around 1850 and Ohio is only partially cleared for farming, less so maybe than Victoria and NSW at the same time. I was thinking that settlement would have begun a couple of centuries earlier but in fact first settlement was at Marietta in the familiar year of 1788, with, according to Wikipedia, battles against the ‘Indians’ – who are not mentioned at all in this novel – throughout the 1790s.

Honor only slowly realises the scale of Belle’s involvement in the movement of runaways. After Belle shoots a snake in the back yard …

Honor thought about the man hiding there, almost three days now cramped in the heat and dark, and hearing the gunshot. She wondered how Belle came to be hiding him. When her ears had stopped ringing she said, ‘Thee mentioned that Kentucky is a slave state. Did thy family own slaves?’ It was the most direct question she had dared to ask.

Belle regarded her with yellowed eyes, leaning against the porch railing and still holding the shotgun, her dress hanging off her. It occurred to Honor that the milliner must have an underlying illness to make her so thin and discoloured. ‘Our family was too poor to own slaves. That’s why Donovan does what he does. Poor white people hate Negroes more’n anyone.’

Chevalier tries very hard to be colour-blind in a book about racial prejudice and has Honor chase after and attempt to befriend an older Black woman, Mrs Reed.

‘May I ask thee a question?’ Honor ventured.

Mrs Reed frowned. ‘What … ma’am.’ Honor did not wear a wedding band, as Friends did not need such a reminder of their commitment; yet somehow Mrs Reed knew she was married.

Please call me Honor. We do not use “ma’am” – or “miss”.

‘All right. Honor. What you want to know?’

‘What does thee think of colonisation?’

Mrs Reed let her mouth hang open for a moment. ‘What does I think of colonisation? She repeated.

Honor said nothing. Already she regretted asking the question.

Mrs Reed snorted. ‘You an abolitionist? Lots of Quakers is.’ She glanced around the empty shop and seemed to reach a decision. ‘Abolitionists got lots o’ theories, but I’m living with realities. Why would I want to go to Africa? I was born in Virginia. So was my parents and my grandparents and their parents. I’m American. I don’t hold with sending us all off to a place most of us never seen. If white folks jes’ want to get rid of us, pack us off on ships so they don’t have to deal with us, well, I’m here. This is my home, and I ain’t goin’ nowhere.’

I listen to lots of audio books but the reason I chose to discuss this one is because I am interested in novels about racism in the US and the light it throws on racism here; and more precisely, because of the difficulty I have with stories about honourable White people, doing the ‘right thing’. I have looked at this before in my posts on Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings and Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. For another point of view,  Lisa at ANZLL has just reviewed another book on the Underground Railroad, The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy (here).

I’m a big fan of the approach taken by Thea Astley: make it clear that modern Australian society is built on the atrocities that White settlers committed against Aboriginals, in historical times until right up to today – just look at Palm Island. Until we acknowledge those atrocities, and all the underlying injustices and unfairnesses that we use or used to make life difficult for Indigenous Australians, there can be no way forward, to genuine racial harmony.

So my problem with stories about honourable White people is that they allow White people today, and not just the White people who say, ‘don’t blame me I didn’t shoot and poison anyone’; they allow White people today to say, ‘well some of us were ok, we weren’t all bad’, and to slide out of acknowledging the great harm we have caused and perpetuate, and benefit from.

Coming home from Kalgoorlie with this review in my head I was listening to the Archie Roach album, Tracker. Lamenting the loss of Country in My History, Archie sings “And so I will only forgive when there is contrition.” I worry that stories like this deflect us from that moment.

The Last Runaway is not literary fiction, but it is a well-written story with an interesting underlying factual base, as is often the case with historical fiction (and, as a bonus for MST at Adventures in Biography, Honor is a quilter and there is a great deal of technical discussion about the differences between English and American quilts). Just don’t treat it as though it is the whole story, or even more than peripheral to the main story.

 

Tracy Chevalier, The Last Runaway, Harper Collins, London, 2013. Audio version by AudioGO, UK, 2013 (8 hrs 45 min). Read by Laurel Lefkow

A Most Peculiar Act, Marie Munkara

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For all their differences in approach, A Most Peculiar Act and Two Sisters (review here), both from Magabala Books in Broome, may be read as two sides of the same coin. They are written by confident, Indigenous women; they are set in the north, in respectively Darwin and the Kimberley; and they deal with the displacement of traditional peoples onto the periphery of white communities.

The principal difference is that whereas the Walmajarri people moved to an area where they could gain employment, the peoples portrayed in Munkara’s satire are herded into camps, in conditions of poverty and dependency, their every action governed by the NT Aboriginal Ordinances Act of 1918 (the ‘Most Peculiar Act’ of the title) and by the ways the police and the officers of the Chief Protector’s department chose to enforce it.

We know from the writings of Kim Scott and Doris Pilkington, for instance, that the situation, especially for women and children of mixed parentage, was no better in Western Australia, but that is not an aspect highlighted in Two Sisters, whereas it is the whole point of A Most Peculiar Act.

Resident Judge writes in her perceptive review of Munkara’s memoir,  Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea (2016): “The narrative voice is simple and feels to me as if it belongs to a younger writer. Munkara is fifty-six, but sounds almost adolescent.  This is not high literature by any means.” Munkara’s voice is simple, direct and street-smart, and to my mind reminiscent of another indigenous* author, Mudrooroo/Colin Johnson.

A Most Peculiar Act is set in 1942-3, but the war plays no part except that the (re-imagined) bombing of Darwin by the Japanese on 19 Feb. 1943 brings the book to a close. The principal characters are all caricatures: Horrid Hump the incompetent doctor/medical administrator made Chief Protector of Aboriginals where “he wouldn’t be able to bugger up a situation that was already buggered”; Ralphie, a patrol officer subject to “ailments brought on by drinking and whoring”; 16 yo Sugar, presumably the young woman pictured on the cover, whose “features were perpetually scrunched up in a scowl that left you wondering if she were in pain or if she were about to commit an act of extreme danger or lunacy”; Drew, a buxom woman, mistakenly employed as a patrol officer, whose “demeanour belied the right-wing red-necked racist that lurked within”.

To the extent there is a plot, and not just a series of funny situations whose subversive intent is to highlight the ongoing racism of the administration of indigenous affairs in the NT, Sugar gets pregnant (to Ralphie), has twins, leaves one of them behind in the hospital, returns to live in the Camp with her community, is segregated off into the Pound (for ‘coloured’ girls) and has her remaining baby stolen, becomes a servant for the lesbian wife of NT’s most senior public servant, the Administrator, and in the final pages, leads the wife and some of her friends to the relative safety of caves in the beachside cliffs when a party is broken up by Japanese bombing.

Ralphie loses his job, attempts to live with the indigenous communities in the Camp, gets leprosy and observes the bombing from the safety of the leper colony on the other side of Darwin Harbour; while Drew initiates a series of disasters and becomes the, willing, object of the Administrator’s affections.

Just one quote. Munkara was apparently herself one of the stolen generation and this is how she describes it:

‘I know the mothers are really grateful to us for finding homes for their children but as primitives they just can’t express it like we do’, said the Superintendent [of the Pound] recalling the traumatic scenes that he’d witnessed of native mothers being relieved of their offspring.

All my life I have regarded the Territory as a place of adventure and romance, but at every turn in this book Munkara rubs our noses in the indignities, the humiliations, the deprivations that indigenous people have endured under what was and in many ways remains, apartheid in all but name. If ever we needed a reminder of why indigenous stories should be written by indigenous writers then this was it.

 

Marie Munkara, A Most Peculiar Act, Magabala Books, Broome, 2014

Lisa at ANZLL’s review (here)


*Colin Johnson’s heritage as an indigenous person is contested, but he was brought up as dark-skinned person in an indigenous community in WA’s south-west and is accepted, by Kim Scott for instance, as a contributor to modern indigenous literature.