That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott


Kim Scott won his first Miles Franklin Award in 2000 and was the first indigenous writer to win that prize. I listened to his winner of the 2011 Miles Franklin as an audiobook, then bought it for my kindle. And I was amply rewarded for each way of experiencing the book.

This is the story of interactions between the Noongar people and the early arrivals of Europeans in the area of Albany, Western Australia, in this story set beginning in the 1820s. The main character is the wonderful and talented Bobby Wabalanginy, born when many were dying of the disease brought by the Europeans. Dr. Cross, when his time as doctor for the English outpost ended, became a booster for settlement in that remote location, touting the good connections with the native population. Though he had a close connection to a man named Wunyeran and understood that grants from the European governor failed to recognize the native rights to land, he too saw the indigenous population in terms of their usefulness and ability to become more like the Europeans, “civilized.” From the point of view of both the Europeans and the Noongars, this book observes the shift of the power differential as the Europeans no longer needed them to survive and came to outnumber them.

But, Bobby, you fall in love with Bobby. He was loved and trusted by the Noongars and the Europeans. He was a quick learner and a wonderful performer. The Noongars were joined by some of the Europeans to see a dance:

…Bobby started playing. He did his shipboard dance:  the rise and fall. The boys caught on, bobbing like things floating in the water and the wave moving along them; and Bobby took little steps side to side, like on the deck of a ship. The men lay down, and Bobby walked across their moving bodies, like the boat in the harbor going from ship to shore. Walking on the waves, see? And then he was staggering side to side and mimed lifting a bottle to his lips: that dance the sailors do.

He improvised a dance that mimed Dr. Cross on his walks, picking flowers and feathers and turning pages of a book. Everyone laughed at his cheekiness and clever improvisations. At the time Bobby was very young and he trusted the “horizon people” for many years, but eventually that changed:

My people and I (he winked) are not so good traders as we thought. We thought making friends was the best thing, and never knew that when we took your flour and sugar and tea and blankets that we’d lose everything of ours. We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours….

The descriptive language in this book is remarkable. Here are three separate examples:

  • Drops of water fell in clusters from the straggly trees and prickly shrubs with a sound like tiny footsteps rushing and dancing all around them.
  • In the afternoon, Dr. Cross and his friends took them to a piano in one of the huts and the music rose and fell over them like a waterfall, like a wave that kept rising and yet fell so surprisingly gentle and made them feel fresh. The pianist’s hands dance across black and white and that hand-dance made the music and did not just follow the sound.
  • But the river on the rocks sounded like someone laughing softly. Chuckling. As rivers and people do. The same.

And the title That Deadman Dance? This was the dance that came after the invaders arrived with their guns.

Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance, originally Picador, 2010, 400 pages (I listened to the audiobook and read the kindle version). Available from Amazon, published by Bloomsbury USA.




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