Do you like a good brouhaha? I do. Even if it’s just so I can use that word: brouhaha. And that’s certainly what we’ve had in the last week since the shortlist for the Miles Franklin was announced. Of course, last year it was all the ‘genre’ debate when Peter Temple won for Truth. Not satisfied, this year we’ve doubled up with two debates! The first of these is on the prize’s requirement that books portray ‘Australian life in any of its phases’. Does this shut out some novels, some themes? The other is the gender debate. Three shortlisted novels and no female authors. Feathers have flown! These are important debates and need an airing. The number of female winners (13 by my count) of the MF is small compared to male winners (40, soon to be 41) – roughly 24%. That seems low, but it’s just a statistic. I’d love to join the cut and thrust, but I’ve felt compelled to sit on the sidelines. The reason? Pure and simple: I haven’t read all the books on the shortlist, let alone the long-list. How can I point to any bias when I can’t support my arguments? All I can do is quote statistics and we all know what they say about them. Numbers give us a headline, and perhaps part of a story, but the whole story deserves more intellectual firepower than the Dilettante has at his disposal. (And look – it’s got me talking about myself in the third person, that can’t be a good thing!)
The only downside to a brouhaha is that it creates noise. Books that have been shortlisted, like Kim Scott’s novel, are at risk of being drowned out. And that would be a shame, for That Deadman Dance is a fine novel.
It tells the story of first contact between ‘the pale horizon people’ and the indigenous Noongar people in the area ofAlbany and King George Sound on the southern West Australian coastline.
The story is layered, multi-stranded and non-linear. There is a large and wonderful set of characters. There are shifts between Noongar and settler points of views and ways of seeing. The different time frames have caused some readers difficulty. I found a couple of small sections a little hard to follow at first, but overall I didn’t find the shifts too difficult. I think a second reading would illuminate them even more. There is certainly no way of missing where the story is and where it is heading in a larger sense. What they sometimes produce is a bit of repetition which I found, in some cases at least, a little ponderous. It hope to learn more about these shifts when Scott talks about the novel at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
For the most part, Scott’s writing has a lovely rhythm to it. This is no surprise given his Noongar heritage, for the Noongar are a very musical people. Noongar language is often used which adds a depth and a sense of music to the prose. The environment is wonderfully drawn too. There are touches of Melville’s Moby-Dick in the whaling scenes – the peeling of whale blubber “like rind from an orange” is a notable echo [p242].
I enjoyed the way Scott weaves in the aboriginal customs and culture into the story, how he explains things. There are some nice ironic inversions too. For example, [p13] we have Menak, one the elders of the Noongar, thinking about the newcomers: “… if nothing else, they might be useful allies against others who, to Menak’s mind, were little more than savages.” [my emphasis]
Relationships between Noongar and settlers occur on several levels. There is sharing, mutual benefit and friendship. There is love. There is misunderstanding, theft, betrayal and whitewashing. There is murder and loss.
Among the first colonists is Dr Cross who lets the Noongar sleep in his house and share his food. He understands the land has been seized from them. “He is our friend,” says Wooral, another elder, [p24]. But already Menat, the sole female elder, is seeing what Wooral cannot, that [p24] the white men more generally are “Devils! Smile to your face but turn around and he is your enemy. These people chase us from our own country. They kill our animals and if we eat one of their sheep … they shoot us.” Menak, growing into his role as one of the few elders after sickness takes the lives of many Noongar, listens closely to her argument. It shapes him, the story, and in the end it shapes us.
Dr Cross looks out for one of the Noongar in particular: Bobby Wabalanginy, whose name means [p39], “all of us playing together”. This is the story’s theme in a nutshell. He is a young Noongar boy when the story starts. We see him dancing on a ship’s deck. He is a leader. It is obvious in his dancing, for when he first danced he broke out of the ‘chorus’ line, if I can use that term, and comes centre stage, joining the elder leading the dance even though he is the youngest amongst them. Bobby is playful, comic, a performer. His stories come with a smile and ready wink. When he recounts his story he says of himself, [p67], “Bobby … never learned fear; not until he was pretty well a grown man did he ever even know it.” For Bobby, that deadman dance “was a dance of life”. Bobby is the fulcrum around which the large cast of characters swings. He is the binding between peoples, growing up in both camps, just like Kim Scott himself.
Good Dr Cross dies and is buried next to his great friend Wunyeran. It is Bobby who tells us of this earliest contact, the love between the two men, the sharing. Bobby [p350] “imagined their bodies rolling toward another as the flesh fell away, bones touching, spirits fusing in the earth.” But the graves are disturbed for progress’ sake and Cross is removed to another graveyard while Wunyeran’s bones are left exposed, stolen by dogs, crunched by thoughtless builders. Bobby is dismayed, as are we: the division and ‘leaving behind’ metaphor is powerful.
Cross is replaced by the mercantile Chaine. He controls trade with the whalers and begins to hunt whales. He employs Bobby who acts as a steerer on one of Chaine’s whaleboats. For a time there is a shared pursuit. There is ‘plenty’. Bobby is happy, although he does not delight in the deaths of the whales and doesn’t eat them – he has a special affinity with them [p274]: “Bobby heard the whales singing. They sang for him.” Menak, older now, set in his ways, defiant, he sees the devastation of the whales for what it is. He mourns the doleful music their bones make on the beaches. He knows they will run out.
In the early days the colonists are outnumbered by the blacks. There is fear. Over time the balance of power shifts. By the end the whitefellas have the ascendency, the Noongar are the minority. Food is scarce. The whales are gone, hunted almost to extinction. When the whites arrived the blacks shared their food with them. Now their food is gone, they want to share the sheep of the white man but he is not willing. Food was always a flashpoint in all first contact relationships, from the days of Sydney Cove on.
In the second part (1826-30) we are thrown a little we go back in time but the narrator is Bobby looking back on these years from some future time. He recounts his life for tourists, for scraps. But even here he is a showman, not just because of a natural inclination, but out of necessity. He needs that showmanship to earn a crust. He says, :
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…
He is then forced to add directly after:
But yes, of course, you’re right, you’re right; my life is good, and I am happy to talk to everyone, and welcome you as friends. The same God and the same good King looks over us all, does he not, my fellow subjects?
And what can we do for Bobby now, after all that has happened to him and the Noongar? Bobby (and Scott) offers us this, [p128]:
All his friends and family kept that boy Bobby Wabalanginy alive, just by loving him, wanting him, and wanting him to stay where he was. Stay is his place.
With the unravelling of relationships and the demise of the promise of the earliest friendships, we sense that things cannot end well. Old Menak and Menat lose their status as proper elders. Bobby begins to make trouble, railing against the injustices perpetrated by Chaine and the colonists.
Bobby has this to say about the power of stories, how they can transform us, [p86]:
… you can dive deep into a book and not know just how deep until you return gasping to the surface, and are surprised at yourself, your new and so very sensitive skin. As if you’re someone else altogether, some new self trying on the words.
The end is poignant, powerful, memorable. When I finished That Deadman Dance I just wanted to sit with its final images. Turn them over in my mind. Feel them resonate. I wanted to go and find Bobby and say to him, ‘What can we do together?’ We should all be facing Bobby Wabalanginy, looking at his dance, embracing his offer of friendship, of family. Our bones will all go down to the sea together and mix with the bones of whales and become something else. In the meantime we should face him. For all those wrapped up in other debates about missing books and themes and authors, take a seat and share Bobby’s story. Those debates are important, but there is no more important theme than our country, our people, our family, how we might share the past and the future.
That Deadman Dance is an important book.
I’m really looking forward to seeing and hearing Kim Scott at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in a few short weeks. That Deadman Dance is shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the winner of which will be announced at the festival. Can’t wait.
Lisa over at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed That Deadman Dance, (as well as the other two MF shortlisted books).
And Morag Fraser’s – one of the MF judges – loved it too. See her SMH review.
The Dilettante’s Rating: 4.5/5
That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott
Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)