That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott (2010) 400 p.
I bought this because I wanted to get the jump on the Booker longlist and, since it won the 2011 Miles Franklin, I thought it might be on it. I was about ten pages in when the longlist was announced and, of course, it’s not. Oh well.
That Deadman Dance is a historical fiction novel taking place in the early and mid 19th century, following the colonisation of Albany in Western Australia and the relationship between the European settlers and the local Noongar population. One character in particular, Bobby Wabalanginy, is an Aboriginal boy who takes a lively interest in the foreigners and is half-raised by white settlers, acting throughout the novel as a bridge between the two cultures.
That Deadman Dance is a surprisingly optimistic novel, and it’s more surprising to learn that this was – up to a point – actually the reality of the Albany settlement. Known as the “friendly frontier,” first generation relations between the two groups were cordial, and it was only the inevitable encroachment upon Aboriginal land and the destruction of their forests and food supply that led to conflict.
This is an important novel, not so much in that it raises questions about our shared history with the “traditional custodians” of this land – every Australian learns from an early age that we came here, took their land, obliterated their way of life, and that many of them continue to live in third world conditions and a cycle of poverty and substance abuse, all because of us. Somewhere around the same age one learns to slide one’s eyes away from these facts, the same way we slide our eyes away from Aboriginals themselves. They are the invisible people of our society. No, That Deadman Dance is an important novel because it examines history without pointing a finger of guilt or blame, without expecting the white reader to feel ashamed. It focuses not on the inevitable schism between Noongar and European, but rather on the friendships and love and co-operation of early settlement. Scott does not shy away from the ugly truth, but his novel is nonetheless positive in tone and outlook, which is truly remarkable.
Reading that over, it sounds like I’m whining about ever having to care about the plight of the Aboriginals, and crediting Scott for writing a book that didn’t make me feel guilty. But it’s not like that at all. It’s more of an optimistic tone (which is often lacking in Australian literary fiction in general) which makes one feel hopeful for the future, hopeful for the idea that we can atone for past mistakes.
It is, however, a difficult book to follow – multi-linear and multi-threaded, and literary in the sense that Scott doesn’t use quotation marks for dialogue, which I’ve always felt makes prose seem like a dream or a memory. I did find it tedious at times to read. I nonetheless feel that it’s an important book, worthy of the Miles Franklin, and will probably end up on the high school curriculum in WA at the very least.