Historical fiction about the impact of first contact between Noongar people, British settlers and whalers
Content warning: colonialism, sexual assault
Last year, even though things were a bit hectic, I decided to take part in the Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon. I was over-ambitious, and on a whim decided to make a stack of blue books from my to-read shelves/piles.
I decided to start with the largest book.
“That Deadman Dance” by Kim Scott is a historical fiction novel about a young Noongar boy called Bobby Wabalanginy who befriends British settlers who arrive at what is now known as south-western Western Australia. Charismatic, intelligent and adaptable, Bobby initially plays diplomat and straddles two cultures who are getting along more or less peacefully. He learns to read and write English, and travels on whaling expeditions, and when he returns to his people, he satirises the newcomers through dance, for which he has a particular talent. However, when his friend Dr Cross dies, the impact of colonisation becomes increasingly felt by his people. Disease, environmental destruction, disrespect, exclusion from their own land and, eventually, murder eventually place Bobby in a situation where he has to decide whether to side with the settlers, or his own people.
This is a richly written, thoroughly researched novel that explores an example of colonisation that, despite being initially peaceful, nevertheless required the exploitation of Noongar land and people. Especially through Bobby Wabalanginy’s skill in dance, Scott shows how Noongar culture is living and responsive to current events. However he demonstrates that Bobby Wabalanginy’s diplomacy has its limitations, and his aptitude for diplomacy through languages and storytelling is not, of itself, sufficient to persuade the settlers to engage in treaty negotiations. It was interesting reading Bobby Wabalanginy’s perception of whaling juxtaposed against classics such as “Moby Dick“
However, despite the breadth of issues and detail included in this book, it was not always an easy book to read. The story flips back and forth between Bobby’s childhood and adulthood, and the chapters do not always feel naturally linked. Scott does not differentiate speech from the body of the novel with any punctuation, and as a reader, the sense is that you have to work hard to immerse yourself in the story.
An immersive and insightful example of historical fiction with a free form style that at times requires a lot of concentration from the reader.