Customer Review

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars `We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn't want to hear ours...', July 29, 2011
This review is from: That Deadman Dance (Kindle Edition)
This novel, winner of the 2011 Miles Franklin Award, is set in the early nineteenth century, when American whalers, British colonists and the Noongar people first made contact in the south of Western Australia. Much of the novel is set in a period of almost 20 years, and covers a stark change in the relationship between the indigenous and non-indigenous inhabitants. From their early reliance on the Noongar in the beginning, as the settlement becomes well established, the colonists come to see the Noongar as a problem.

Bobby Wabalanginy is the central character in this novel and, as the novel opens, he is a boy. Bobby grew up doing the Dead Man Dance, a symbol of first contact with the men from over the ocean's horizon:

`By the time he was a grown man everyone knew it had never been dead men dancing in the first place anyway, but real live men from over the ocean's horizon, with a different way about them.'

For Bobby, this was a dance which celebrated life and which all people could dance together. Unfortunately, the colonists with their newfound confidence in their established settlement had different views. Different peoples, different concepts of ownership, different views about sharing. Few people, from either group, saw things as flexibly as did the young Bobby.

`Understood that there were other people he must be with on his way to becoming a man.'

Dr Joseph Cross, who led the first contact group, was a wise leader. When he and Bobby work together, both sides learn from each other. When Dr Cross dies, he is buried (as he requested) beside his friend Wunyerun. A memorial is raised to Dr Cross, but there is no mention of the Noongar man beside him. This does not augur well for the future.
We see, briefly, Bobby Wabalanginy in old age, putting on a performance for tourists: dancing, singing tales and launching boomerangs. Has Bobby become a clown?

`Bobby danced many of the people in the settlement of King George Town, and it was as if they had all come here to join in the festivity.'

This may be a novel set in the past but it holds a mirror in which could be reflected a different future. The novel is told through the eyes of white characters as well as black, of young people as well as old. And echoing through the novel are questions for the reader to consider: what if there was genuine friendship between equals? What if colour was seen as simply difference instead of a barrier? What if there was a place for indigenous expertise as well as the benefits of white settlement? The narratives do not have to be mutually exclusive, and in this book Kim Scott offers possibilities. So that Bobby's lament: `And we now strangers to our special places.' - need not be an immutable fact.

I enjoyed this novel. From the descriptions of the landscape, to the characters who occupy it, and the languages used - there is a shifting in the balance of power between the participants in the story as well as between the story and the reader. There are a number of different journeys contained within That Deadman Dance: coastal journeys, the business of whaling, the endeavours of hunting and farming. The characters come to life: especially Dr Cross; Bobby Wabalanginy; Menak, the tribal elder; Jak Tar,the escaped sailor; and Christine Chaine, once a childhood friend of Bobby's but later a very proper young white lady.

And I need to read the novel again, to more completely appreciate what Kim Scott has achieved.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 30, 2011 6:25:18 AM PDT
Tom McGee says:
Thanks for a great review, Jen.

Thanks to your review, I want to read this book right now.


Posted on Aug 1, 2011 6:29:06 AM PDT
H. Schneider says:
yes, Tom is right, this looks like a winner! another whale of a whale!

Posted on Aug 1, 2011 7:50:03 AM PDT
I enjoyed reading your review. You described the novel very enthusiastically.

Posted on Jun 27, 2012 12:15:35 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 27, 2012 12:16:34 PM PDT
Jen, sounds like a book for me! thanks for adding to my list. Seems I missed it earlier. Friederike

Posted on Jan 6, 2013 6:30:22 AM PST
Jennifer, I had less patience with this novel than you, but I enjoyed your review, and especially admire the paragraph beginning "This may be a novel set in the past...". Roger.
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Location: ACT, Australia

Top Reviewer Ranking: 664