Michael Crummey’s novel of nineteenth century Newfoundland is another epic worth reading. John Peyton and his father live off the land and sea in a country where the native people, the Beothuk, have been driven away. The story centres on an unsettling incident where two Beothuk men are killed by a group that includes the Peytons. The fall out from this incident and how it affects both men is the central drama of the book.
The settlers see the land as theirs without any thought to who might have lived there before them. One of the settlers is called Reilly who has himself been displaced since he is an Irishman who lived in London before being exiled to Newfoundland. He is married to a Mi’kmaq woman so seems to have an affinity with First Nation people yet he is implicated in dark goings on with the Beothuk. Then there is Cassie, a woman employed by the older Peyton as housekeeper. John Peyton’s passion for her grows but he is inarticulate when faced with his belief that she is his father’s lover.
Themes of belonging, family, identity and inheritance run through the novel. The idea of settlers as pioneers making their way in a new world are challenged when the consequences of their actions on the existing inhabitants are considered.
‘River Thieves’ by Michael Crummey is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This powerful novel by Sebastian Barry spoke to my heart, not only because it tells the story of two men in love with each other, an easy love that did not bring each other heartache or soul- searching, but because it was a story of making your way in the world with all its difficulties in such an unassuming way. It is also a novel of identity, national as well as personal since this is America in the middle of the nineteenth century and the states are anything but united and the tribes that predated the white settlers are suffering from the move west.
Thomas McNulty and John Cole are in love. He has arrived in America from Sligo, Ireland by way of Quebec and fits in as a soldier since that is a way of earning a living. His love, John Cole, is an American he meets under a bush. Together they travel and earn a loving, first as dancers, dressed in female attire, and then as soldiers. Throughout the story Thomas is fluid in the expression of his gender, something that has deeper importance as the book reaches the denouement. What never changes is their love for each other and their determination to stay together. This is something that is ‘understood’ by those around them if not always remarked on; it is never an issue. This is not a coming out novel with the requisite angst!
The novel takes us to the frontier where ‘Indians’ are being forced from the land. Whatever Thomas McNulty thinks of this, he does his duty and in doing so becomes a surrogate parent with John Cole for Winona. It is the power of the writing that makes you want the very best outcomes for these characters despite the harsh conditions and historical events that seem sure to tear them all apart.
This is a novel to care about and one that uses the singular voice of Thomas McNulty to speak up for people who we now call gay but who then were just people in love. ‘Days Without End’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This novel by Kate Grenville is another exploration of real events through fiction. In this case, she has taken the first settlers of New South Wales and developed a story about the first encounters with aboriginal people. It is a wonderful story of how one man is changed by his encounter with another culture.
Daniel Rooke is a young man who has been out of place all his life. At first, his gift for mathematics causes problems since it earns him a place at an academy where he does not fit in; all the other students are from wealthy families while he is a son of a clerk. He loses himself in numbers and in the natural world. When he grows up he joins the navy so that he can study navigation and the stars. Once again he is out of place, surrounded now by the tough, military minded soldiers and sailors on the trip to the other side of the world. His ship is full of prisoners sent to New South Wales as a punishment.
Once there, his gift for astronomy sets him apart and he is allowed to create a base of sorts away from the main camp, the better to study the stars and await an expected comet. In this semi- detached state he meets aborigines in a closer encounter than is achieved in the main settlement of Botany Bay. As the frequency of his meetings grow so does his desire to learn their language and develop understanding of their way of life. Instrumental in this is a young girl whose inquisitiveness allows her to venture where others of her people fear to go.
Yet, the story must move towards the point where conflict arises; why would it not when the interests of the settlers and the aborigines are in opposition? And so, Daniel Rooke, the accidental Lieutenant of the title finds his own conflict between serving His Majesty and serving science. When he is given a direct order to carry out an act that offends his sense of humanity, he must decide which side of himself will triumph.
This is a wonderful recreation of period with a clear sense of the moral dilemmas that can be faced at any time, given the circumstances. The ending shows what can happen to a man of integrity when the British Empire is in the way.
‘The Lieutenant’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Taika Waititi is responsible for a wonderful film called ‘Boy’. He wrote, acted in, and directed it so seeing his latest venture was a must. ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ is based on a book called ‘Wild Pork and Watercress’ and in the hands of Taika Waititi it has become a charming film that is also very funny.
Julian Dennison plays Ricky Baker, the troubled, overweight kid in the care system who is sent to live with ‘Auntie’ Bella and ‘Uncle’ Hector in a remote part of the country. His instinct is to escape as soon as possible but his survival skills are low and each night his flight ends up back where he started.
Ricky is not the easiest kid to deal with and his trust of adults is understandably low but Bella is as tenacious as Hector is disinterested. It seems that the young boy has, at last, found a place to call home.
When a tragedy strikes, all the couple’s hard work looks as if it has been for nothing so Ricky takes off but Hector finds him. Together, they have an adventure that takes them far into the bush away from civilisation. The joy of the film is in the small moments all of which stem from the personalities of the main characters. Julian Dennison is terrific as Ricky. He comes across as authentic as the difficult and troubled youngster but, like Bella, we see the charm of a child underneath.
The major part of the film takes the form of a chase but the humour lifts this beyond the ordinary and the ending provides the satisfaction we want for all involved. This is another triumph for Taika Waititi. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I sought out this film because it starred James Rolleston who was so good in both ‘Boy’ and ‘The Dark Horse’. In this film he plays the son of a tribal chief who looks for peace between the villages only to be double crossed. It is left to the son, Hongi, to restore the honour of his people by tracking down the warriors who attacked his village in the dead of night.
To find them, he must cross the Dead Lands, so-called because a whole tribe died out there and the souls of their dead lay in wait for anyone who enters.
Hongi is not a proficient fighter but he understands his duty so he does not shy away from tracking down the killers of his father. On his travels he meets an old warrior who has the reputation as a man-eating monster. Hongi’s youth and his relative innocence leads him to seek help from this man rather than fear him and since the old man is, himself, in need of redemption, he agrees to go with him.
The film is quite violent; the body count is high even though the paddle like weapons look deceptively harmless. The dialogue is in the Maori language and the scenery is amazing but it is the performance of Rolleston that gives the film its heart. Trying to do the right thing and knowing that a man braver and stronger than he would do better, he completes his task with honour.
‘The Dead Lands’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
There is a scene about two thirds of the way through this film when Charlie, played by actor David Gulpilil, is being attended to by a doctor in a hospital in Darwin, Australia. “Can I call you Charlie?” the doctor asks. “I can’t cope with foreign names.”
The moment is significant if, perhaps, the least subtle exchange in this brilliant film by director Rolf de Heer. Charlie is an old man trying to come to terms with the destruction of his old way of life. Trying to fit in within a settlement run for Aboriginals by ‘western’ whites is a struggle. He is patronised by well meaning professionals of all types at the same time as witnessing new attitudes among the young.
He exists just below the radar trying to avoid the attentions of the police and resisting the white man’s food. Things change for him when his hunting rifle is take away from him, followed by his home made spear, made to replace the rifle. “It is a dangerous weapon,” says the young police man as he takes it off him, smiling benignly the whole time.
It is this misunderstanding between cultures that is the most hurtful and Charlie heads off into the bush to reclaim his old life only to fall sick. His route back is a long one involving hospital, alcohol and prison. His crime, as Charlie sees it, is to be an Aboriginal.
The theme of displacement is a key one to the film but so is the idea of hanging on to a separate identity within a country that has different rules, attitudes and social norms. The Sydney Opera House is mentioned several times in the story. Charlie was a boy when it was opened by the Queen and he danced with others at the special ceremony. It is a link with his past and an event when the two cultures met. At the end of this film, Charlie teaches the younger Aboriginals how to dance, in case this part of their heritage is lost.
‘Charlie’s Country’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Charlie (David Gulpilil, left) with police officer Luke (Luke Ford, centre) in a scene from Rolf de Heer’s “Charlie’s Country”. In cinemas July, 2014 An Entertainment One film release For more info ph 02) 8303 3800
I was late to this novel by Kate Grenville. It was originally published in 2005 but I read it only after searching for novels about the Aboriginal people of Australia. It was an amazing novel about trying to secure a place in the world when the odds are stacked against you.
William Thornhill is born at the bottom of British society but he works his way up through the goodness of a local Thames waterman who takes him on as an apprentice in early 19th Century. It seems that he has the opportunity to make something of himself, especially as he marries his master’s daughter. The London section of the book shows a man determined to make his way in the world but all too aware of the strata of society above him; the well to do enjoy making boatmen wait, it emphasizes the power relationship.
Yet, William Thornhill gets involved in stealing, as do many of the less well paid boatmen on the river. When he is caught he receives a death sentence and it seems, after all, that a man cannot rise above his station.
The Australia section of the book mirrors the London part. Here we see a William Thornhill, transported rather than hung, in the penal colony that is Sydney. He is ‘given’ to his wife who has travelled with him to the other side of the world. Here, they make the best of it and take the opportunity to work their way back to freedom and, so his wife hopes, back to London.
The novel shows us what can happen when a man is given a chance to start again. Thornhill travels up the river to claim land and start a farm of his own. He has the opportunity, once again, to rise above his origins. Ownership of land is central to this sense of identity and vital as a way of proving to himself that he is better than the labels attached to him by others.
Aboriginal people are bewildered by the concept of owning the land and when the Thornhill family see them they are both frightened and confused by their lifestyle. This meeting of cultures is central to the development of the book from this point. There are times when he seems impressed by the strange people he has encountered but William is shocked when one of his sons is found naked playing with the Aboriginal children. He fears encroachment onto his land and into his family. As a man who has fought his way to this point, there is no doubt that things will end badly. Although not a cruel man, his neighbours are a mixed group of those who respect the Aborigine those who want them gone from ‘their’ land.
There is a central act of violence at the heart of this book but it is the section that follows that is the most poignant in terms of the effect on a man and his family. Fighting for a place in the world is one of the central themes of the book but so is the cost this fighting brings. ‘A Secret River’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?