Combined Reviews: That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott

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   That Deadman Dance
Kim Scott
Pan Macmillan

[This novel has been shortlisted for the 2011 Miles Franklin Award and the 2011 Prime Minister's Literary Award. It previously won the Best Book category for the South-East Asia and Pacific Region of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.]

From the publisher's page:
Big-hearted, moving and richly rewarding, That Deadman Dance is set in the first decades of the 19th century in the area around what is now Albany, Western Australia. In playful, musical prose, the book explores the early contact between the Aboriginal Noongar people and the first European settlers.

The novel's hero is a young Noongar man named Bobby Wabalanginy. Clever, resourceful and eager to please, Bobby befriends the new arrivals, joining them hunting whales, tilling the land, exploring the hinterland and establishing the fledgling colony. He is even welcomed into a prosperous local white family where he falls for the daughter, Christine, a beautiful young woman who sees no harm in a liaison with a native.

But slowly - by design and by accident - things begin to change. Not everyone is happy with how the colony is developing. Stock mysteriously start to disappear; crops are destroyed; there are "accidents" and injuries on both sides. As the Europeans impose ever stricter rules and regulations in order to keep the peace, Bobby's Elders decide they must respond in kind. A friend to everyone, Bobby is forced to take sides: he must choose between the old world and the new, his ancestors and his new friends. Inexorably, he is drawn into a series of events that will forever change not just the colony but the future of Australia...


Morag Fraser in "The Sydney Morning Herald": "That Deadman Dance is a novel to read, recite, and reread, to linger over as Scott peels back layer after layer of meaning, as he slides unapologetically across time and between cultures and ways of being, seeing and understanding. Sometimes his shifts and turns are more boomerang than snake, rebounding, catching you unawares like a sharp key change - exhilarating, disorienting...Scott exploits his ancestry and historical records - songs, diaries, journals, letters - to ground this imagining of early contact. His characters, both Aboriginal and European, are deeply incised, like aunties, uncles, brothers and sisters as robustly individual and cranky as your own (some of them bear the names of Scott's forebears, Manit, Wunyeran and Binyan). Black and white, they stand on ceremony, break rules, break new ground, revert to tribal type, trust, conspire, despair, hope and betray. And there are so many of them that you may need to draw up a Russian novel-style list, with the equivalent of patronymics for the initially bewildering variety of names and languages, spoken and written...There are many strands to That Deadman Dance: epic coastal journeys, whaling sequences that will make you gasp in wonder, injustice, understanding and loss. But it is the characters - flawed, credible human beings, embodying their history but never mere ciphers - who stay with you.."

Martin Shaw for "Readings" bookshop: "Scott begins his tale in the early 1830s, focussing on a fledgling colonial outpost not far from present-day Albany. His narrative follows both black and white, and is divided into several parts, proceeding linearly over a little over a decade, but including as well a prequel of sorts back to the mid-1820s. It is a periscopic style that enables us to observe the shifting perspectives over time among all the participants, newcomer and traditional owner alike, as the 'progress' we know from our history books unfolds...It's hard to imagine we'll ever again have an account of this period, fiction or non-fiction, with such veracity as this, and I mean that particularly in terms of the psychological. For here we get absolutely convincing portraits of the attempts at understanding on both sides."

Patrick Allington in "Australian Book Review": "Scott is an asiduous researcher and a deep thinker. Benang is a feat of storytelling: Scott weaves the complexity and the politicisation of language and the consequences of assimilation policies directly into the prose. But in That Deadman Dance, it is the author's imagination and his graceful prose that shine brightest. Colonisation has prompted in Scott a different imaginative response from the assimilation policies and eugenicist belief systems of early twentieth-century Australia. Although That Deadman Dance does not have Benang's sense of being a landmark book, a sardonic, tottering monument, it is nonetheless the better -- as well as the more accessible -- of the two novels. Politically charged and historically astute, it possesses a furious poise and yet is generous of spirit. Scott avoids gratuitous description, which serves only to heighten the novel's potency."

David Whish-Wilson: "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."

Kim Scott on the "ANZ LitLovers" blog: "It is, as you read, as if all the preconceived ideas of this country's history of Black and White relations fall away and a new paradigm takes their place. What if, Scott asks, the benefits of White Settlement and indigenous expertise were mutual and equally valued? What if there were a genuine friendship of equals? What if the companionship of children grew into adult love across the colour bar? What if the Noongar landlord had been welcome in the houses that the White Man built across his land? And, is it too late now?..Effortlessly, these new ideas insinuate into consciousness. Bobby Wabalangay dances his way through this novel challenging the sourness of the History Wars. He offers a new way of looking at the past and at the future. Scott has the moral authority to play with these ideas because he is a descendant of the Noongar People who have always lived on the south coast of Western Australia where the early whaling settlements were. Like Bobby he speaks both languages and listens in both."


Ramona Koval on ABC Radio's "The Book Show".

"Booktopia" blog.


Kim Scott on Youtube:

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on June 20, 2011 3:43 PM.

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