That Deadman Dance – Kim Scott

That Deadman DanceThat Deadman Dance was the 2011 winner of the Miles Franklin Award and the third book by Kim Scott.

It concerns the first contact between white men and the local Aboriginal Noongar people around Albany in the South West of Western Australia in the early 1800s. Bobby Wabalanginy is a young boy when he has his first contact with white men and is the protagonist of the story. He’s taken under the wing of Dr Cross, who teaches him to read and has a deep respect for Bobby’s culture and family, to the point where when Dr Cross dies, he’s buried in a joint grave with Wunyeran, one of the men of Bobby’s tribe.

After Dr Cross’ death, Bobby is taken in by the family of Geordie Chaine, an settler whose wife continues to teach Bobby to read and write, along with her son and daughter. But there’s money to be made from raising stock and providing for the American whaling ships that visit periodically, and men like Geordie Chaine, ex-convict William Skelly and ex-solider Killam are ready to make their fortunes.

The fragile peace that has been made between the early settlers and the Noongar becomes strained as the white man’s agriculture causes a shortage of native food, forcing the Noongar to steal sheep. And excessive whaling, which has led to dependence on the white man’s business dealings also has a devastating impact on the Noongar population. They find out that when times get tough, the white man has no intention of sharing the resources of the land fairly.

The ending of this story was expected and yet not expected and I think Kim Scott has done a great job of conveying the complexity of the interactions between white and Indigenous people back then. I’ll don’t want to say more than that so as not to spoil it.

Bobby is a fantastic character, a clown with boundless enthusiasm for his own and the newcomers way of life. He creates the ‘deadman dance’ to imitate the stiff bearing of the white man and uses it to entertain his friends. The story is told from his point of view, as well as several of the white men, and Kim Scott does an excellent job of conveying the different language and feelings of each as he slips from one point of view to another. In fact the start of the story is a little off-putting because the narrative is fractured as the Noongar people are only starting to understand how these white men live. Bobby’s irrepressible optimism carries through the story and in a way helps to build tension as we fear what is coming.

Kim Scott’s writing is beautiful and poetic and perfectly suits his descriptions of the land, the sea and wildlife, of which there is a lot, showing the deep connection the Noongar people have to them, and the complete lack of connection of the white men.

I enjoyed this story very much, though it took persistence to push through the first few chapters where the narrative was so lyrical but deliberately opaque to serve the needs of the story.