The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville


This work of fiction is based on recorded events; William Dawes was a lieutenant on the ships which brought the first convicts to Australia.  He was a scientist, knowledgeable about astronomy, mathematics and languages who left a record of the language of the indigenous people of the Sydney area.  The point of land just to the west of the Harbor Bridge is named Dawes Point and it is near that point that there remains an observatory.  He reluctantly participated in an effort to punish the tribe that mortally wounded one of the gamekeepers of the First Fleet.  He regretted his decision and told the governor he would refuse any such orders in the future; he would have been court martialled if that had been possible and instead was returned to Britain.  He never returned to Australia but worked for the abolition of slavery for the rest of his life.

The fictional character, Daniel Rooke, isolates himself from the settlement, living in a small shelter on the point, recording readings using the telescope set up in a tent.  He eventually becomes friends with some Aboriginal people, especially children who come to visit him.  The beginnings of understanding between himself and Tagaran, a 10 year old girl who is especially bright and becomes his friend, are wonderfully told.  She reminds him of his younger sister, his closest friend in the world, and he eventually comes to believe Tagaran showed him the existence of the man he could be.

He grows from being a soldier with no choices to a man willing to make difficult choices.  He realizes,

It was the simplest thing in the world.  If an action was wrong, it did not matter whether it succeeded or not, or how many clever steps you took to make sure it failed.  If you were part of such an act, you were part of its wrong.  You did not have to take up the hatchet or even to walk along with the expedition.

I'm not sure how often we encounter circumstances that are "the simplest thing in the world," but we clearly fail to consider those moral questions as we should.  Seeing the disciplined world of the British soldier through the eyes of an indigenous person affected Rooke's outlook.  In one harrowing scene, a friendly Aboriginal man is invited to attend an event which to his horror turns out to be the flogging of a man who stole food.  There's nothing that could explain to him the necessity for such an action. 

Rooke's love of the natural world and his new perspective (being in the southern hemisphere) are well expressed.  I was especially taken with this passage near the end of the book.

He could see it now as he had never seen it before:  one body of water encircling the globe, the continents nothing more than insignificant obstacles around which it effortlessly flowed.  The land, much less the people on it, was irrelevant to this enormous breathing being.

For me this is one of the top five books for 2009.

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