2010, 406 p
Is it too soon to say three little words: “Miles Franklin Prize”? I don’t think so: I see that this book has been nominated as the Pacific region contender for the Commonwealth Writers Prize for 2011, and it’s surely destined for the Miles Franklin shortlist at least. And this is just as it should be.
I found myself reminded of many other works, both historical and fictional, while reading this book: Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers which echoes more than the title alone, Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, and most recently Lisa Ford’s Settler Sovereignty. But this book, taking as it does an Aboriginal – specifically Noongah- sensibility and voice could be written by an Aboriginal person alone, and this, too, is just as it should be.
That Deadman Dance is roughly chronological, although we learn early in the book that Bobby Wabalanginy , the main character, will end up a dishevelled busker-type, entertaining tourists with a patter that combines history, pathos and showmanship. The book opens in 1833-5 with Bobby already ensconced in among the whalers and early settlers on the Western Australian coast. It then backtracks to 1826-30 with first contact, a spearing, accommodation and wariness, and the actions of Dr Cross – a good man who trod carefully in this strange and old land, remembered kindly by the Noongah people who knew him, and claimed and acclaimed as a venerable ‘old pioneer’ by subsequent white settlers who did not. Then forward again to 1836-8 in Part III, followed by 1841-44 in Part IV. There’s an increasing sense of foreboding as the book unfolds. The abundant whales stop coming, the ‘depredations’ intensify, and the Governor and his son Hugh impose an imperial imperative onto the narrative.
Kim Scott makes you work hard as a non-Indigenous reader. There’s Noongah language here, untranslated, and the narrative voice is a lyrical but overwhelmingly oral one. I found myself slowing down while reading, apprehensive of what was to come in the steadily decreasing pages, but also just to subvocalize as I read and to let the language wash over me.
I cannot help it: I am a historian, and even in my fiction reading I cannot turn this part of my brain off. But here I found no false notes, no clashing consciousness. Indeed, I felt as if I were reading Lisa Ford’s Settler Sovereignty being acted out in front of me:
Laws were being enforced now, thankfully. Natives must be clothed and without spears if they were to enter town. It was only decent, and if we are to civilise them, as Papa said is the only way, then clothing is an important precursor…to what use do they put this ownership as against what we have achieved in so short a time? Papa could sometimes explain things so well. It may have been expedient at one time, but was no longer necessary (p367)
Scott does not set out to write history, but there is an authenticity to his work, and I sense that he has not hard to work as hard at finding it as, for example, Kate Grenville admits to have done in her Searching for the Secret River. It is a book that uses fictional names but is solidly grounded in Noongah country and landscape. But the story it tells is bigger than this and it has its echoes in Bennelong and Charles Never. There’s an element of magic realism as well, and a sense of ‘if only’ as well as tragedy. Well, well worth reading.