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That Deadman’s Dance, by Kim Scott.

July 31, 2012

That Deadman Dance, by Kim Scott.  New York: Bloomsbury, 2011.

A superb novel of the early interactions of whites and blacks on the southwestern coast of Australia.

In That Deadman Dance, Kim Scott interlaces the thoughts and actions of both British and Indigenous people.  Descended in part from the Noongar people of the coast of southwestern Australia, Scott has read widely in the available documents of the tribe and the history of the area.  In his novel, he looks not at the officials who led the colonization, but at the way individuals from both groups thought and acted over a period of 15 years as their relationships, which had initially been somewhat friendly, soured.  Scott shows us the Noongar’s ingenuity and playfulness, their love of song and dance.

British characters developed in some detail include the doctor who was the first settler in the region to view the Noongar as friends with whom to exchange knowledge.  Then we come to know an ex-soldier, an ex-convict, and a sailor who deserts his ship.  There is also Geordie Chaine, an ambitious colonist, arriving with his family to make money and eager to force the Noongar to contribute their resources and to become laborers for his enterprises.  Although convicts and soldiers are present, the main focus of the British is economic and includes Indigenous men involved in whaling.  Among the Noongar, Bobby is the central figure, first as a bright charismatic boy able to charm both black and white, later as a young leader defending his people, and eventually as an old man entertaining tourists with his somewhat inaccurate tales of the colony’s beginnings.   In contrast to Kate Grenville’s account of inter-racial sexuality, white men take or marry black women, but when Bobby matures, he is carefully isolated from Christine, the daughter of the chief colonist whose lessons and adventures he had shared as a child.  Romance with Bobby becomes almost unthinkable for her.

Kim Scott shows that it is possible to write novels full of vivid Indigenous and British characters and to give equal validity to all of them.  To do so is not easy.  In addition to spending long hours in research to find information about particular tribes, we must shift our mind set, our imagination, to include those who we typically assume are other.   We may well need to depend on speculation and fiction to convey what we learn.  Failure to do so, however, is to perpetrate old myths of white superiority.

I strongly recommend this book, for anyone who wants to enjoy watching fascinating people from another time and place interact.

Related reviews.

Dancing with Strangers, by Inga Clendinnen.

Sarah Thornhill, by Kate Grenville.

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