That Deadman Dance
Kim Scott
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Buy *That Deadman Dance* by Kim Scott online

That Deadman Dance
Kim Scott
Bloomsbury USA
368 pages
February 2012
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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As an Australian born and bred, I was proud to read, Scott’s historical novel of the tumultuous nineteenth century, when colonial Britain’s dominion over Australia is in its infancy and the native Aboriginal tribes are held within the grasp of an uncaring government authority that considers them at best pests, at worst heathens who need to be educated in Christian ways.

Amid the boom of ocean upon rock, the shrill caw of birds rising and falling with the sea spray, we see a dark figure of a boy in the rigging and anchoring of a whaling ship in the great protected bay of King George Town. The boy, Bobby Wabalanginy, is clever and brave and smart. Emboldened by the blue of the sky and the many shifting tilting surfaces below, Bobby feels perfectly at home on a whaling boat, where the reflections of the stars and the moon are made so real.

Although he was only a young boy when the white man first came to this area, Bobby and his fellow tribesmen Menak and Wooral have never forgotten how their first friend, Dr. Jonathan Cross, bought them gifts from far beyond the horizon. It was towards Dr. Cross that they first performed the tentative dance of friendship, “the deadman dance,” the ceremony for greeting people who had come from across the seas.

Cross’s experience of the fledgling colony and his acknowledged good relations with its Noongar people only seem to diminish his personal sense of authority. Unfortunately, there will be one last breath of eucalyptus leaves, of earth and of sun-warmed granite. Cross’s wracking cough is as familiar to Bobby as the “creaking timbers," eventually derailing his proposal to make a life in this most isolated of places where the land encloses the ocean.

While Cross’s first hesitant friendships with the Noongar tribe are essential to our understanding of how the natives will eventually be exploited, imprisoned, and even murdered, Bobby’s journey is the core of the novel, his life symbolizing a reckoning of the ambiguities of both black and white man. Through Bobby’s wise and garrulous voice, we follow this transition from military garrison to colony and the factors crucial to its success. Other settlers arrive and find themselves unhindered by matters of class: Georgie Chaine brings money, stock, tools and enterprise; proud soldier Alexander Killiam becomes harbor master and pilot.

Here in this very place, Bobby is tied to the same coincidence of natural rhythms. Far beyond the movements of sun and wind, of fish, birds and animals, it comes as no surprise that the Noongar will gradually find their way of life decimated by the marauding white man, these “pale horizon people” who amid so much casual violence "chase us from our own country, and kill our animals.”

Scott’s gorgeous phrases drive the novel: the echoing shapes of whalebone and moon beach, the deep blue and turquoise water, and a ship that tears blubber from a whale while shafts of sunlight shift restlessly "like thick smoke." Difficult and complex, Bobby continues to sing and dance, his melancholy innocence reflecting life and death, embodying all that is noble about the delicate spirit of his ancestors.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2012

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