Thea Astley’s book was written fifteen years ago about an event that happened in the 1930s but this historical fiction has turned out to be tragically prescient.
It begins with the cyclone that annihilated the Aboriginal settlement Mission Beach and led to the establishment of a new mission on Palm Island and it ends with the 1957 strike of the Palm Island men against the menial tasks they were expected to do- an industrial action that was severely repressed. And though Thea Astley didn’t know it, we could add another post script to her story with the Palm Island death of Mulrunji Doomadgee that Chloe Hooper has described so sensitively in her book The Tall Man.
The central action in the book is the massacre inflicted by the superintendent of the island, Robert Curry (known in the book as “Uncle Boss Brodie”) who, crazed by the death of his wife and suffering from neuralgia, torched his own house killing his children, shot and wounded the Doctor and his wife (mistress in the book), set fire to the other houses and blew up the buildings on the reserve. He was eventually shot by one of the Palm Islanders on the orders of one of the white officials.
At first I thought that the book was going to unfold as a series of Rashamon-like chapters, each telling of the killing from different perspectives. The book started with an Aboriginal English telling of Palm Island’s history – a technique that non-Aboriginal writers might flinch from now. Then the narrative voice shifts to Mrs Curthoys the hotel-keeper; then Morrow the inept Works Manager; and finally Brodie himself. But then it jumps ahead some fifteen or so years and picks up on other characters who had been there on the island that night: the teacher, the Catholic priest, and even beyond them to the children of those witnesses who had not even been born at the time of the massacre.
Brodie dies; the Aboriginal boy who shot him is jailed but then released. At one level it is over, but the witnesses and their children are drawn back to it like a web. The jobs they take, the marriages they make, the choices their children make are all set wobbling onto a different trajectory by what happened on Palm Island in the 1930s. On Palm Island, too, Brodie is replaced by other administrators who, like their predecessor, become crazed with their own authority and the tension builds again.
I had mis-read Astley’s metaphor of the rainshadow. I had in my mind those billowing afternoon clouds of tropical Queensland that build like towers in the sky until the rain pours down, the skies clear overnight and then the whole cycle starts again the next day. I thought that she was referring to the oppressive humidity, or the fury of rain. It seemed apposite: Palm Island’s recent history seems to have been a succession of crises that build, burst, abate then begin to build again.
But a rainshadow is a desert, not a jungle. It’s the phenomenon by which rain falls on one side of a mountain range but it remains dry on the other side. Now that I know this, the rainshadow metaphor works well too. There is a cataclysm; it occurs, then there is parched emptiness. There is a dessication about the people in this book: they move out from Palm Island onto the mainland where they live unhappy, meaningless lives.
The book ends in despair and hopelessness. There’s no redemption here for anyone. Even less for the Palm Island that Chloe Hooper brought us some eighty years later.
If you read the comments below, you’ll see that Whispering Gums and I both wonder if our reviews (her review is here) emphasize strongly enough that the book is fiction. As I look at my posting, I think that’s a valid point. The bookends that frame the book- the rampage and the strike- are both factual events, but she has fictionalized the characters. Even Brodie/Curry (a factual character) has been filled out from the imagination, as he did not survive to give any account of his motivation. So- look for Astley on the fiction shelves, not the non-fiction! and tease out a little more that eternal conundrum about history and fiction…
The newspaper reports of the day provide a sobering illustration of the imaginative space that Astley had to roam in- they are stark, skimpy reports that read as if they were coming from outer space or a distant, distant frontier . From the National Library newspaper site, here’s an article about Palm Island that will make you cringe written prior to the event; and here’s one about the rampage itself. There’s others too- just search “Palm Island”, narrowing the dates to around 1930.