Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Kim Scott's That deadman dance


Written by Sylvia: 

On July 26 Minerva met to discuss That deadman dance by the Indigenous writer Kim Scott. All present had read most if not all of the book and although there were a couple of people who thought it was a little long and needed a good edit we all gained an insight into life of a Noongar  man in the first few decades of white settlement in SW Western Australia.  It is the same old story of exploitation of the sea and the land by white Europeans but it has many twists and turns which made it most agreeable and enjoyable to many of us. It is also more poignant because you get to feel the loss of status and hope experienced by many of the Noongar people during this time.

A surprisingly good feature is that it is not sequential in the life story of Bobby Wabalanginy (how do you pronounce that?). It covers the years from 1826 to 1844. We hear about when Bobby was very young and experiencing the sea and the whaling industry which arrived and left all in the space of a few years, the settlement, the exploration, the agriculture and the town growing up and his elderly life when he is telling tourists some of the stories told to him by his surrogate dad Menak as well as his own stories and songs. The Prologue is fascinating as it links Bobby not only to whales but also to European education -- learning to write English as well as work out his connection and love of whales and their presence in the sea.     

The whaling scenes were considered by some to be distressing and too long but others thought they were good in that you really felt that the story had not been told so graphically before. And Scott captures the feeling of strangeness that his ancestors must have felt when going on board a big ship and experiencing the sea in a very different way from the way. 

Another very good feature of this novel is that Scott makes a European reader a little bit more aware of the subtleties of Indigenous life -- for instance the lack of amity between tribes.  Another example is that the Europeans thought they were trading for good 'things' from the local people but sometimes the Indigenous people gave them 'shonky axes, or 'a spear that wouldn't fly' (page 73).          

There are many great characters in this book as well as Bobby. Menak is a powerful force in the novel -- 'a wise man' who suspects all Europeans. Dr Cross is one of the few good settlers who takes great interest in the local people and of course he is not popular with the others. Some of the others try but as time passes the opportunities for friendship disappear and so does the goodwill between the nationalities. James and Jeffrey are two Indigenous men who are killed by Chaine who is one of the most greedy of the settlers, but James and Jeffrey are not without their faults too.

The language is excellent -- some Indigenous words -- not always explained and lots of different words used to explain Indigenous culture. It does not have the cliche words such as 'dreamtime' but Scott talks about men from the horizon (for the white settlers).

Scott is a very clever writer as he is telling history as well as writing many memorable passages which add to his novel giving it resonance for all readers  -- a very good example is the passage about reading:
 you can dive deep into a book and not know just how deep until you return gasping to the surface...  (page 86)  
The whaling imagery is quite wonderful and very evocative. Another very good passage is Scot's raw view of the bush as seen by the explorers -
Leaves were like needles, or small saws. Candlestick-shaped flowers blossomed or were dry and wooden... (page 46)
- which is so much more graphic than using the modern botanical names. 

I think many of us think this book could easily take a second reading as there is much to interest and understand.

Thanks, Sylvia ... and next time we'll do it together so it can be posted under your account.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks Sylvia. I for one hadn't come across the indigenous perspective on white settlement quite so well conveyed before, and, as you say, loved the descriptions of this particular aboriginal culture and their way of seeing the world. Europeans, for example, referred to as "those horizon people" implying the forlorn hope that they might go back there. Just as in our next book, Caleb's crossing, we find clashing World views. Europeans gave trinkets and such in return for land, not caring that the locals misunderstood their intention to take exclusive posession of it.

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  2. Lovely Sylvia, you have highlighted some of the nuances of this book, and I agree that it warrants re-reading. The language is particularly arresting...he's not at all preachy, but invites us into the experience of the range of characters in the harbour. For instance I thought his description of Dr Cross's illness very moving...
    'Bobby had seen blood on his handkerchief, and a lace of pink foam on his lips. Dr Cross was a wave, breaking just a little, and what was inside and beneath was spilling out.'
    I was also intrigued by the title 'That Deadman Dance' on searching the e-book on my reader (!!) I found it referred to a dance done by Bobby and the Noongars imitating the soldiers,
    'Sometimes, even though its a dance. you just stand dead still while one person out front moves his hand very fast...Over and Over again, the many copy the one....First time ever we saw that dance it was as if a dead man had come back to life, and having lost everything once, were more serious and intent and all of one will.'
    It goes on to talk of Bobby's power in the dance, so that the men around him fell down as if dead when he touched them.
    It's a poignant reflection of the impact of the men from the horizon on the indigenous groups. I thought it may also have a reference to a sailor's term for walking the plank, or a term for execution: dead man walking. Kim Scott talks about the Noongar Dance that it was based on, and that the adaptation of the dance by Bobby may have been the beginning of the end. http://www.fancygoods.com.au/booksellerpublisher-magazine/2011/06/23/interview-kim-scott-on-that-deadman-dance-picador/

    A book worth reflecting on and looking at again. I was glad I read it, even though it was a challenging book to read.

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