Wednesday, July 25, 2012

That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott

Bobby Wabalanginy never learned fear, not until he was pretty well a grown man. Sure, he grew up doing the Dead Man Dance, but with him it was a dance of life, a lively dance for people to do together...

Told through the eyes of black and white, young and old, this is a story about a fledgling Western Australian community in the early 1800s known as the 'friendly frontier'.

Poetic, warm-hearted and bold, it is a story which shows that first contact did not have to lead to war.

It is a story for our times.
Some times, as a reader, I need a bit of a push to read a specific book. Usually, this happens with books that I wanted enough to buy but then I struggle to fit it in between library reads and review copies.

So it was with this book.  I bought it last year when I attended a Melbourne Writers Festival session which featured the author, Kim Scott, along with a couple of other authors talking about writing books from the indigenous perspective. In this case, Kim Scott is an indigenous Australian, a member of the Noongar tribe which originates in the far south western corner of Western Australia.

As soon as Lisa from ANZ Litlovers announced that she was going to run the Indigenous Literature Week this week (to coincide with NAIDOC week) I knew that this was the book that I was finally going to read! (NAIDOC originally stood for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee although now it is more the name of the week than an acronym for something else).

Was the wait to read it worth it? I would have to say yes, but there is a bit of a disclaimer, but I will get to that in due course.

This novel asks a very simple question. What if, at first contact between native Australians and the British colonisers, things were different? What if the two groups worked together with mutual benefit, rather than be a story of domination and destruction? What if true friendship could be formed between the two groups, and by extension what lessons could we possibly take from this example today?

Of course, all those what ifs are coloured by the truth of what was, and that truth is not denied in any way, but for a while there it seems as though the colonisers and the representatives of the Noongar people might have been able to find a way.

The pivotal character of the book is Bobby Wabalanginy and he in effect performs the role of guide to the reader. At various times throughout the novel he is equally at home with his tribe and also within the homes of the British who have come to colonise the area around King George Sound, which is near  current day Albany. Bobby has a special affinity with the whales that follow their migration through the sees nearby, and also a special ability as a storyteller and to mimic those around them, both in voice and in dance. We see Bobby as both a young boy telling of his life now, but also as an old man looking back through time. Far from being a conduit between the two cultures, as an old man Bobby is something of an oddity, telling his fascinating story to anyone who would listen - in effect he was a tourist attraction.

Whilst Bobby is our guide, he is not the only voice that we get to here in the pages of this book. We meet Dr Cross, one of the first men to make the trek to the area with the hope of starting a new settlement. The good doctor is keen to foster good relationship with the locals and initially it seems that will be possible. He takes Bobby under his wing, but he is not a well man.

Following in his footsteps are the ambitious Mr Chaine  (and his family) who has high hopes of making his fortune by catering to the needs of the American whaling ships that flock to the area for the annual harvest of whale oil, Mr Skelly the soon to be ex convict, Sargeant Killam, Jak Tar the sailor who escapes from one of the ships, and the Governor who comes with very set ideas on how the native issues should be resolved.

It may sound as though the focus is purely on the Aboriginal experience, but Scott doesn't back away from the hardships that the white settlers face

The narrative is both straight forward and yet somewhat convoluted thanks to the way that the book is structured. Part 1 is set in 1833 to 1835 whereas part 2 tells of the events that occurred in 1826 to 1830 but this section is told to us by old man Bobby looking back through the years. We are then back in 1836 to 1838 for Part 3 and 1841 to 1844 in Part 4. Even within those parts there are flashbacks and past questions answered. And yet, overall, at the end of the book, the story felt quite straight forward and linear. That doesn't always happen when an author plays with the concepts of time in their storytelling.

One of the things about this book is that it did challenge me, it did make me work for the pay off. There are lots of sections where the language is beautiful and yet other sections where there was repetition of phrases which becomes very obvious as I was reading. There was also a lot of information in the book about the process of whaling as it was performed in the 1800s. Not something that modern readers would necessary be comfortable with, but certainly that aspect fitted within the historical context of the time.

One of the most poignant passages in the book is one that I shared in my Tuesday Teaser post recently:

Me and my people... My people and I (he winked) are not so good traders as we thought. We thought making friends was the best thing, and never knew that when we took your flour and sugar and tea and blankets that we'd lose everything of ours.. We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn't want to hear ours....
Later in the book as the narrative wends it's way to the inevitable truths that we know of the relationship between the two groups, the observation is made about how the white man has taken everything from the Noongar: their food, the watering holes have been destroyed by introduced stock, their freedom. And yet the whites punish the natives if they try to take the food etc that they so badly need. Even though it is the story that we know, it was a very powerful section to read.

Whilst Scott makes it clear in his notes that this story is fiction, he does acknowledge that there is evidence to suggest that this idea of cooperation between the Noongar people and the white settlers did happen.

This book won the prestigious Miles Franklin Award in 2011 amongst many other prizes, and without having read the other shortlisted books, it does seem like a worthy winner to me. By focusing on the indigenous experience, Kim Scott gave me a fresh perspective on a story that seems so familiar to most Australians. It is a story that needed to be told.

I am glad that participating in ANZLitlovers Indigenous Literature Week has finally given me the nudge that I needed to actually read this book! I definitely intend to read more from Mr Scott in the future.

Rating 4/5

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