That Deadman Dance
by Kim Scott
2010 / 355 pages
rating 9 / contemp Aust.
Thanks to the blogs of Sue Terry and Lisa Hill (see below) in which they recognized and hosted Indigenous Aussie Literature week I came up with a couple books by indigenous authors which they had reviewed and also were available on Kindle. I decided for no real good reason to read That Deadman Walk first. A winner! (And of the Miles Franklin Award no less.)
Talk about intriguing! It’s historical fiction from the era of first contact on the southwestern shores near today’s Albany between the years 1826 and 1844 or so. The book is obviously about what happened to the original good relations, including personal of many different kinds, between the two distinctly different cultures, one intensely entrepreneurial, the other basically primative communal. But it’s about language and storytelling, too, I think – and oral history maybe, perhaps in song or dance.
Bobby Wabalanginy is a bright and talented young boy of the Noongar people and in the Prologue he is trying to write words on paper. Over the course of the book he grows up and his land is decimated by “big fires, guns and greed.” After the Prologue the story skips forward several years and then back to earlier times. It’s generally chronological but without being particularly linear in all places – if that makes sense.
Through the course of a few years came the English, Dutch, French, and American whalers seeking adventure and fortune in or near the fledgling settlement. In addition there were English military men to stave off French influence and guard the small colony, there were merchants and escaped sailors and prisoners at various times along with an occasional wife.
Dr. Cross, a major character, is one of the very early settlers, a pioneer who wants to bring his wife over and settle down peacefully. He applied for a land grant and got it. He becomes good friends with several natives and does all within his power to keep friendly relations. Cross’ best friend is a native named Wunyeran who is a quick learner and very loyal. But time passes, illness pervades the fledgling settlement and the two friends die. Bobby Wabalanginy, the main character of the novel, “adopted” by Cross as a baby, is another very early close friend. Bobby is essentially raised in both worlds and for the novel, he may even represent Australia, or its indigenous population in the early to mid-1800s.
A chunk of the book concerns a somewhat later exploratory party organized by Geordie Chaim, a merchant and investor, which sets out across the bay to find grazing land for sheep. With him are Bobby, now a bit older, Killam, an enterprising soldier, and two black male teens (not Aborigine). The group gets way off its sailing course but makes it to land where they get really lost and find themselves in a long life or death struggle against nature and each other for sheer survival.
After that a number of incredible whale hunts unfolds, including some with rival ships, sometimes going after whole herds of whales. Very dangerous but profitable for the capitalists and it makes for some intense reading, almost redolent of Moby Dick? Not really – the loss of whales is sad here because they too are indigenous.
Meanwhile Chaine’s children are growing up and a bond forms between Christine and Bobby while Jak Tar, an escaped seaman, gets Bobby’s “sister,” Binyan, for a wife.
Things change for the Noongar as well. With too many strangers around, too many rules and too many English words in Bobby’s song, the older folks are not happy.
Scott’s language, a theme in itself perhaps, with its variable syntax and unusual vocabulary, some of which is Aborigine, is dense and stunningly luminous with rich and theme-appropriate metaphors. There are basically two third-person points of view or consciousness, that of the natives, particularly Bobby Wabalanginy, and that of the Englishmen. These two have very different voices, language, ideas, and in the third person the distinction sometimes blurs, but it’s fairly well controlled and beautifully done.
And symbolism, yes of course – the title itself symbolizes both death and First Contact. The whales, the bones, the fire, maybe Bobby himself, as I mentioned, are laden with meaning. Lots more, I’m sure.
Finally, there seems to be a dose of magical realism here – in the most excellent sense of the term. But it is really so much a natural part of the story it may not be right to call it magical realism. – Who is Bobby and how can he do these magical-seeming things, be everywhere, inside the whale and the ocean and the land? But he’s just a little boy who grew up, isn’t he – with a gift for language and feeling and able to get on with both cultures? Still, it’s the clash created between these two realities, Bobby’s original Noongar and that of the enterprising English, which makes for the fertile ground of authenticity – like One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez where the native community was confronted/ challenged by the Industrial Revolution.
And an interesting commentary: