Tuesday, 18 October 2011

What Might Have Been

As most people are aware, the relationship between the settlers and the original inhabitants of my adopted country has often been, shall we say, far from ideal (some would say that little has changed...).  When the British claimed the continent for the crown, they declared it Terra Nullius (Latin for 'land belonging to no-one'), conveniently ignoring the Aborignal tribes who had been living there for tens of thousands of years.  In many cases, this clash of cultures resulted in imprisonment, de facto slavery and (in at least one case) virtual extermination.

Kim Scott's novel That Deadman Dance attempts to show that this (like so many other things) happened slightly differently over in the West.  Set on the southern coast of Western Australia in the 1830s/1840s, this year's Miles Franklin Award winner depicts an intriguing slice of Australian history, a period when colonists and natives coexisted in relative harmony.  Scott has Aboriginal ancestry, and his story incorporates members of his family, from the Noongar people, and actual events of the period, using history as the base for his tale.

The novel revolves around Bobby Wabalanginy, whom we first meet as a daring young boy, dreaming of women and whales.  When British colonists arrive to establish a make-shift settlement, the leader of the expedition, Dr. Cross, takes a shine to Bobby's adoptive father, Wunyeran, and the two men become friends.  The Aborigine starts to learn English, visiting the main settlement and experiencing the thrill of travelling across the ocean waves, while Cross starts to learn about the Noongar, hoping to set an example of cooperation which will spread to other settlements in the colony.

As the story progresses, however, these initial promising beginnings are tested.  When the job of keeping the relationship alive and strong passes on to the next generation, it soon becomes clear that the balance of power has shifted - where the uncomfortable colonists were initially outnumbered by the Noongar, the settlement eventually grows, just as the indigenous numbers begin to dwindle.  Once this happens, the spirit of equal claims to the land is almost doomed to failure.

The charismatic Bobby, singer, dancer and linguist, is a member of the generation growing up throughout this period of change, still living with his people but able to pick up enough English to make himself very useful to the settlers.  His experiences mirror those of his people, at first indispensable, then grudgingly tolerated, later expected to conform to the new cultural norms, imported from beyond the horizon.  Bobby wants to believe in the newcomers (from whom he received his new name), hoping to straddle the divide between the two worlds, and he continues with this until the end, long after many people (on both sides) have given up the pretence of mutual respect.

While I enjoyed the book, I must confess that it didn't impress me as much as you would expect from a book which took out Australia's top literary prize.  It dragged a little for me, and the lack of any real plot, other than the main idea of the change in fortunes of the two groups, left me feeling that there was something missing.  However, That Deadman Dance is an entertaining novel and extremely fascinating from a cultural point of view.  The reader is shown how the lack of understanding between the two groups repeatedly complicates their efforts to get along.

The Noongar constantly expect the new arrivals to be leaving again, regarding them as guests, albeit ones who may be stretching their welcome a little.  The settlers become annoyed that the natives constantly beg (or steal) food, not realising that they themselves are doing the same when they hunt kangaroos and dig up wild vegetables.  Even friendships like that of Cross and Wunyeran are unable to paper over the cracks of ethnic differences.

Sadly, these differences eventually grow into a vast gulf between the two cultures, one Australia is still trying to close today.  Hopefully, future generations will look back on our time much as we look back on the time portrayed in That Deadman Dance - as one unrecognisable in a more civilised era...