In a shameless act of bandwagoning, I bought this on Thursday morning, just after the announcement, and proceeded to read it over the weekend so I could sound intelligent at work this week. Which is, of course, a legitimate reason to read anything, no? Granted, it also interests me because it comes from the first Indigenous author to win the Miles Franklin Award, so I was curious to see what made the judges think Kim Scott was good enough to win the Award a second time.
On the southern coast of Western Australia, a small, intrepid band of British settlers are trying to make a life out of their new circumstances. Perhaps contrary to other settlements, the local tribe – the Noongar – are happy enough to help where they can, both sides interested to learn about the other’s culture. In the middle of this cultural exchange is Bobby Wabalanginy, a Noongar boy educated by the British. Is he the prototypical Australian? Or just an historical anomaly?
It’s easy to see why this won the Miles Franklin. Historical novel – check. Indigenous issues – check. Beautiful descriptions of the Australian landscape – check. This flippant remark, however, is slightly unfair for two reasons. One – the Miles Franklin hasn’t gone to an historical novel for a good four years. Two – Kim Scott’s book does do things with these themes that are a bit different to what has gone before him.
Dealing with issues such as these, authors cannot not bring their own politics into the world they create. And I don’t think they should try to be some kind of impartial arbiter of history – much as Inga Clendinnen wants them to be. As a Noongar man, Scott brings his own biases and whatnot to the table when he talks about these incidents. But rather than go for the thoroughly depressing (though probably fairly accurate) tales Kate Grenville gives us in her (soon to be completed) trilogy of tales set in early Sydney, Scott shows us a society where, for the most part, both sides get on. There is no talk of ‘blackfellas’ and ‘whitefellas’ – just simple curiosity on both sides, each eager to learn more about the other. And as this cultural exchange slowly becomes more concrete, bits and pieces flow between. The eponymous Dead Man Dance is the dance of the white men, as envisaged by the Noongar people.
Bobby, of course, is the focal point of this cultural syncretism. At once a loveable rogue and deeply intelligent young man, he is, I think it’s fair to say, a symbol of what Scott wants Australia to be. Having recently reread Remembering Babylon, it’s interesting to compare Gemmy with Bobby – two characters that are set up as symbols of a mixed Australia, of Aboriginality and Britishness in one. While Gemmy is set up as a tragic figure, caught between two cultures to which he doesn’t really belong, Bobby is almost the polar opposite. His ability to speak multiple languages, to converse easily with people on both sides of the divide about important issues, is what makes him to valuable, and so important. And so if we track Bobby’s character arc, it’s pretty easy to see Scott’s vision for his own perfect Australia – one that seems quite nice, to be perfectly honest.
Of course, it’s difficult to tell any story about Indigenous Australians and British colonisers getting along for too long, because we all know the story turns to shit pretty quickly. For the mob here, this idyllic Australian utopia is brought crashing down when the whaling industry, at that time vital to the economic growth and well-being of these small coastal towns, collapses because of overfishing (are you listening, Japan?) Since they provided help with the industry, the Noongar people – quite rightly, to be honest – want to share in the spoils during the leaner times. Of course, this does nothing to endear them to the British, and the inevitable story begins to unfold.
This is a hopeful novel, though. Without giving too much away, Bobby’s speech in the closing pages of the novel is at once funny and didactic. Scott is clearly speaking through his creation, and message is clear. People can live together, and not want to kill each other. There is a way. And together, it can be found. Yes, to reduce it down to something like that makes it sound like cheesy hippy crap – which is no doubt why Scott won the Miles Franklin, and nothing I’ve ever written has been published. He makes you believe that there is a way. And then, that sting in the final paragraph – well, I don’t want to spoil it for you.
To paint both sides of the battle for Australia in the late 1700s/early 1800s as bloodthirsty, doing everything they can to protect their lines, is reductive and demeaning. There was a time and place in Australian history, no matter how brief or small, where both sides managed to coexist peacefully, indeed, to the point of becoming better by learning from the other. This is the take home message of That Deadman Dance – that there is hope. There has been hope before, and there will be again.