2008, 269 p
Chloe Hooper is obviously strongly drawn to this story. It started as an essay “The Tall Man” in The Monthly ; she returned to it in November 2006 with another essay “Who Let the Dogs Out?”. She revisited it more recently through a book review of Thea Astley’s ‘Multiple Effects of Rainshadow’ in Sept 2008, and again in a tangentially related story “Boxing for Palm Island” in the February 2009 edition of The Monthly.
Her book and related essays use the motif of the mythical figure of The Tall Man to frame the story of the death in custody of Mulrunji, who died in police custody on Palm Island in 2004. His death sparked inquests, a riot, a court case and a re-opened inquest over a five year period. The story is not finished: nor do I think it ever will be.
Palm Island has had a troubled history. It has been an Aboriginal mission station and viewed by its inhabitants as a penal settlement; it was used as a naval base during WW 2; and a nearby island was set aside for sexually transmitted disease, then as a leper colony. An early white administrator Robert Curry went berserk there in the 1930s, shooting his children after the death of his wife, a tragedy compounded by the arrest of the young aboriginal boy deputized by the white staff to kill Currey in order to protect the other inhabitants. Fortunately, after six months remand, the young man was found not guilty.
As was Chris Hurley, the police officer accused of the death in custody of Mulrunji in 2004. Drunk and abusive, Mulrunji was arrested for causing a public nuisance. An hour later he was dead in his police cell. Death was found at autopsy to be caused by “an intra-abdominal haemorrhage caused by a ruptured liver and portal vein”.
This was the first trial of a police officer for a death in custody. Hooper spoke with Mulrunji’s family, sat with them at the trial and shared an umbrella with them in a tropical downpour. She makes no secret of where her sympathies lie. On the other hand, though, she is clear-sighted about the violence, drunkenness, poverty and hopelessness of life on Palm Island. She could not get access to Chris Hurley, and in an attempt to understand him better, she travelled to where he had been posted earlier- the ironically-named Doomadgee, and Burketown.
The inhabitants of Burketown, and the Queensland and Northern Territory police who closed ranks around Chris Hurley are dismissive of ‘southerners’ with their caffe lattes and liberal ideas. They’re right in one thing: people ‘down south’ don’t understand. It churns up all the ambivalence that ‘southerners’ feel about John Howard’s intervention (continued by the ALP); our discomfort with the group of aborigines drinking under a shady tree on a naturestrip in a country town, or even here in St Kilda, Melbourne; our conflicted feelings about David Gulpilil. The world she describes here evokes Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Maycombe County in To Kill a Mockingbird. Somehow it’s easier to slot it into a literary genre, rather than own it as part of your own country.
This is a gritty and challenging book. It evokes Helen Garner’s work, where the author is right there in the story: questioning, weighing, judging. As with Garner, as a reader you are always aware that the author is framing the narrative for you, and directing you to “look here”, “listen to this”. Like Garner, Hooper declares her loyalties and feels angry and bemused. I suspect that she will keep writing it, on and on, because the story itself goes on and on and on.