Numerous authors, in recent years, have written about the settlement of Australia and the taking of aboriginal lands by white settlers, something the Australian government has recently tried to rectify through legislation and for which they have apologized. Kim Scott's That Deadman Dance is unique, however. The son of an aborigine (Noongar) father and white mother, Scott has written this novel from the Noongar point of view, bringing it to life through the stories surrounding Bobby Wabalanginy and his family, who are named for members of the author's own family.
From his earliest recollections, Bobby has been connected to whales, and he remembers Menak, the King of the Noongars (and his father), telling him about sliding inside a whale's blowhole, warming himself beside its heart, and joining his voice to the whale's roar, a story Bobby vividly imagines reliving himself. At one point, he even describes his mother acquiring him when his father cuts open a whale on the beach. Now, at age nine, Bobby travels between his own tribal group and that of the "horizon people" who have come to his land, learning to read and trusting in the people he has met. As more and more people come to King George Town, including British, Yankee whalers and the French, however, the "horizon people" begin to claim more property, and each time they do, they take it from the Noongars. Noongar women are stolen, and both blacks and whites begin to deceive each other, provoking vengeance.
Though it is divided into parts which have dates, the novel is not completely linear. Bobby is larger than life, a mythic figure, absorbing and relating many of the stories of his people, including one in which he "dies" and flies through the air. At several points, he is speaking as a very old man, amusing tourists with his lore and throwing flaming boomerangs for their entertainment. Eventually, "there were no more of his people and no more kangaroo and emu and no more vegetable. After the white man's big fires and guns and greed, there was nothing."
Many exciting subplots evolve in the course of this hypnotic and important novel, told as an old-fashioned, "once upon a time" narrative, with incredible scenes of the slaughter and rendering of whales bracketing much of the action, the whale symbolism clear. Bobby and his people follow the seasons, wet and dry, warm and cold, and as the action unfolds, much of their lives as wanderers becomes real - their values, their feelings, and their intense love of nature and the land. As events and the growing population take their course, however, one culture is obviously poised to win from the outset, and one to lose. The ending, though completely expected from the glimpses one gets of Bobby's old age throughout the novel, is nevertheless devastating emotionally. Bobby, like his ancestors, deserved better. The novel is breathtaking and important, and I suspect that few readers will finish it without feeling exhausted by its intensity. Mary Whipple
That Deadman Dance won the Australian Miles Franklin Prize 2011 - against expectations.
Kim Scott is a writer from Albany, Western Australia, with Aboriginal heritage. He can therefore claim some authenticity as he evokes the early years of Albany principally through the eyes of Bobby Wabalanginy, a young Aborigine of the Noongar people. Unlike some parts of the new territories, the early settlers to Albany - or King George Town as it was known - developed good relations with the indigenous people. Dr Cross, the first governor, was buried alongside Wunyeran, the Aboriginal leader. But as memory of Dr Cross faded, and as new settlers came, relations break down. This is brought to a head as the whales in the bay are overfished (if you can fish for whales) and food becomes scarce. This leads to a clash of cultures as concepts such as ownership and sharing mean different things to different people.
That Deadman Dance is hard to criticize. The subject matter is worthy and Kim Scott is a credible writer to take it on - even if he is inevitably looking back through the lens of the coloniser. But it does sometimes feel a little repetitive and a little overlong. One of the big problems is that the early settlement was little more than a few tents pitched between the trees and the sea. There are people and there is nature, but there isn't much stuff. There are some strong characters but little opportunity for them to interact in substantially new ways with one another. This can make things feel bleak; can make it feel as though the struggle for survival and struggle for supremacy is just a little pointless. The early settlers may have won riches for their ancestors, but they had little opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their labours at the time. And after a couple of hundred pages, the reader feels that he or she has got the point. There is then a fair bit that feels like padding before the ending is played out over the last fifty or so pages.
The non-linear narration is also worth mentioning. This can make reading a slightly frustrating experience. In particular, characters tend to be mentioned when the action first warrants it - and then they will be introduced some pages later. The novel is chunked into four time periods and they are not presented sequentially which, given the already non-linear narrative - can be confusing. Perhaps this is to indicate an Aboriginal perspective (perhaps echoing Chinua Achebe's technique in Things Fall Apart), but perhaps it covers for the fact that not much is really happening. There are also multiple points of view at play, some from the settlers and some from the Noongar - although the Noongar perspective does tend to dominate.
That Deadman Dance is certainly worth reading; it is very poetic and evocative. It has something genuine to say. But one can't help but wish Kim Scott had used a hundred fewer pages to say it.