Submitted by David Whish-Wilson on Mon, 17/01/2011 – 15:45

It was a Wiradjuri bloke I know who once told me that, from his point-of-view, every book written in Australia is a work of crime fiction, especially those books that have nothing to do with the ‘true history’ of this country. He was squatting on the old mission land outside Dubbo, a visible reminder to the council (which was considering developing the land) of the generations that had lived there and whose descendents had moved into town, to ‘vegemite valley’ as he called it. We were sitting around his campfire, smoke stinging my eyes, above the narrow brown river where he said Jimmy Blacksmith had hid out when he was on the run from the law. He told me stories about Jimmy Blacksmith that I hadn’t heard before, and talked about his old mate Kevin Gilbert, and his belief that it was the stories we tell about the place that we live as much as the place itself that makes us feel like we belong. He pointed out that if you look at the official record then Jimmy Blacksmith was just a cowardly thug. That it is the stories that are told by the people who are left behind that make sure the dead are never forgotten, that something of their presence remains.

                This got me thinking about my hometown of Perth, and the common currency of stories that are likewise told down the years.  What most of these stories have in common is that many of them undermine the historical record ‘from below’,  by either filling in the gaps left by unanswered questions or by effacing them entirely, replacing them with narratives that configure the truth in an entirely different way. ‘        

                Line of Sight, which uses Shirley Finn’s murder as a starting point, would seem to belong to a genre whose other recent Australian examples include Wayne Grogan’s Heavy Allies (2008) and Camilla Nelson’s Crooked (2008). These stories each describe aspects of the Sydney underworld that until recently could only be hinted at in the official press. Both novels are largely fictional, with wholly invented characters, but yet refer to events and practices with a basis in reality. These kind of crime narratives use fiction, in other words, to not only write ‘into’ the gaps in the historical record, but also to explore a certain kind of emotional truth. According to South African crime writer Chris Marnewick, these kinds of narratives thrive in post-colonial countries where the frontier mentality is recent, where certain populations have become adept at turning away from unpleasant facts, where it therefore becomes one aim of the contrarian writer to ‘serve up the raw facts of an unappealing history in a new and provocative way.

                  Kim Scott’s most recent book – ‘That Deadman Dance’ is a great example of this blending of fact and fiction for a particular purpose, and is something much more artful and poignant as a result. Set in the earliest moments of contact between whites and Noongars (and following them down through the years) around what has become contemporary Albany, the tragedy of what ultimately became of traditional culture in that area is used as a device that gently frames (the unsaid speaks throughout) the exploration of the human side of what has become known as the ‘friendly frontier.’ There are countless great reviews of the book online that give a suitable precis of the complex plotting of the novel, which is structured so as to essentially provide a voice to each of the participants, on both sides of what was to become a great cultural divide, although what Kim makes clear is that initially this divide wasn’t unbridgeable. The pleasure of reading Kim’s beautiful prose, the richness of his characterisation and effortless flowing between voices and dialects and ways of seeing the world are only some of the pleasures of this terrific book (and trust me – when it comes to fiction I’m hard to please.)

               One of the other tangible results of the publication of the book is the fact that, as far as this reader is concerned, ‘history’ is the richer as the result. Based on solid research (Kim can trace his ancestors to this area, and these stories), and refracted through the mind of a distinctly original writer, ‘That Deadman Dance’ and particularly its central character Bobby Wabalanginy give voice to not only what was, and what is now, but also to what might have been – serving not only as a reminder that history is always a matter of individual people, and the choices they make, but also the hard truth that the very openness and generosity of the original inhabitants of the area, something that enabled at one point a genuine possibility for intercultural understanding, particularly as it relates to the nature of ‘country’, was lost (perhaps not irrevocably) precisely because to a large extent the learning and resulting cultural adaption only went one way.

‘That Deadman Dance’ Kim Scott. Picador, 2010. “Told through the eyes of black and white, young and old, That Deadman Dance is a story about a fledgling Western Australian community in the early 1800’s known as the ‘friendly frontier’. Poetic, warm-hearted and bold, it is a story which shows that first contact did not have to lead to war. It is a story for our times.” (From the dustjacket)