Maybe it’s just me but I always like a happy ending which is, I guess, what makes reading historical fiction so difficult. We all know for example how the invasion of Australia ended – and it wasn’t happily ever after. Still I found myself caught up in hoping that maybe this book could somehow still have a cheery finish. But given that ‘That Deadman Dance’ is inspired by the history of early contact between the Noongar in the author’s hometown of Albany in Western Australia, I knew in my heart that this couldn’t be.
My hope was not entirely unrealistic however, as this area was known as the ‘friendly frontier’ because of the initial good relationships that formed in the very early days of colonisation. Kim’s writing made me fall in love with the Noongar characters and I wanted the powers that be in the novel to do the same. Of course historically and in the novel, there were many white fellas who genuinely extended the hand of friendship and believed in equal treatment. But even amongst these well meaning folk there were many who couldn’t see beyond their own prejudice or belief in their right to the land they had ‘conquered’ and so conflict was inevitable and the ‘friendly frontier’ lost ground when property and ownership came into question.
Based on historical letters, ‘That Deadman Dance’ sets out to show that first contact did not have to lead to war. It is this fact that keeps you hanging out for that one little decision that could have changed the outcome. But true to history, Kim Scott knows that his characters’ destiny is set. ‘That Deadman Dance’, however is not about the end, which we all know so well, but rather is a fascinating study of humans interacting with each other and about the many miscommunications that happen along the way to the detriment of friendships. Set in a whaling town, it also gives an interesting insight into this industry that was once such an accepted part of the Australian economy.
While the characters were formed from historical records, ‘That Deadman Dance’ doesn’t read like a historical novel but is very character driven. Kim was determined to show the Noongar’s sense of confidence, inclusiveness and play, as well as showcasing their ability to learn and embrace new language, songs and culture. It is about the many cross-cultural interactions that could have led to an enriching of both cultures. His use of the names of many of his own Noongar ancestors gives it a sense of family and belonging and makes it feel personal.
For fans of Kim’s other work including ‘True Country’ and his Miles Franklin Award winning novel, ‘Benang: From the Heart’, you will no doubt enjoy this latest offering.
‘That Deadman Dance’ is published by Picador Pan Macmillan Australia.