For more than a decade, Alex Miller has reliably brought us a new novel to enjoy every two or three years, so by my reckoning we are about due for a new one soon. It was time to read his most recent, Coal Creek, (2013) which had somehow lost itself amongst the others on the overflowing ‘M’ shelf…
It’s such a powerful book, I read it in a single sitting. Narrated by Bobby ‘Blue’ Blewitt, it tells the story of a simple man caught up in forces beyond his control when an intruder disrupts the peaceful ways of generations in his small town.
Miller seems to have a nostalgia for the simple working folk of rural and remote Australia. (See a quotation from Alex Miller’s introduction to the Folio edition of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet). Bobby is an illiterate young man, subsequently taught to read and write by the twelve year old daughter of his employer Daniel Collins. Constable Collins, ex army, has come to Mount Hay from the distant coast for a kind of post-war adventure. Mount Hay is so remote that Bobby, who knows the country backwards, isn’t sure whether the next town west is in Queensland or the Northern Territory. But it’s of no consequence anyway, since lines on a map mean nothing to Billy… tellingly, he is content not to know.
There was no town further west after Mount Hay, just them two big cattle runs, the Stanby’s Assumption Downs, and they was English people, and that family out at Preference whose name I never could remember, it was Irish. But no actual town until you crossed the border into the Territory. But I never went that far west and I never heard of no town over the border except what they used to call the Wheel. I am not sure if the Wheel is in the Territory or is still in the state of Queensland. Like I said, I never been out there and I have no picture of the Wheel in my head but only the name. Mount Hay was the end of the line then and still is as far as I know that country. (p. 9)
The coast, and all the towns in between are similarly irrelevant to Billy, although he and his stockman father range so far and wide in the scrubs that his mother has been dead for a week by the time they return from a job. Bobby still carries the memory of his kind and gentle mother deep within him, and her death provokes a rare example of male stoicism faltering in this novel:
I did not weep out in the yards that day I heard my mother had been dead a week but I wept when I was on my own later. And since that day I have wept for my mother many times, thinking of her love for us all and her special regard for me that I was never to know from any woman but one. Me and Dad buried my mother up there in the cemetery behind the town reservoir and everyone in town come to her funeral and walked up the hill behind me and Dad and Ben Tobin and his dad who were all carrying her coffin. Which weighed very little. At the graveside I seen my dad weeping, his hat held in his hands in front of him, his face uncovered to the crowd and his grief at the loss of his beloved companion plain for everyone to see and no shame in him. It was the only time I ever seen my dad weep and it moved me greatly and my grief caught me in the chest and I wept with him. Charley did not get back from the coast for it. (p. 6-7)
Charley is Bobby’s brother, who fled the inertia of Mount Hay and lost touch with his family. But Bobby is more than content with the insularity of its people, he celebrates it. For him, the quiet ways of the men he knows are more effective than any alternative:
Dad never had much to say unless he was angry with you, then you heard it from him. If Dad wanted me to do something when we was out mustering he raised his whip and indicated. He knew I would be keeping an eye on him, like a man playing in a brass band has one eye on the bandmaster and the other on the music. That is the way all them old fellows did it. They indicated. And we understood them. They never had a lot of time for yelling and carrying on like people do today. (p. 6)
Hard men they were, but with a belief and a grace in them and in their actions that we do not see in men now. It has been forgotten. I do not know why. (p. 8)
Daniel Collins does not understand the reticence of these locals, and makes a fool of himself through habit of interrogating people about their everyday dealings. These people operate on the basis that you will be told about something if you need to know it, or if you can’t for some reason work it out for yourself. Waiting while things sort themselves out is preferable to stirring up unnecessary trouble. Bobby, who has taken on work as Daniel’s assistant, interprets Daniel’s clumsiness in his dealings with people and his lack of knowledge about the bush, as irrevocable ignorance. He lets Daniel ride home through the bush, knowing that he will get lost, not out of malice but because he thinks Daniel is unteachable.
Somewhat reminiscent of Sinclair Lewis’s character Carol in Main Street (see my review), Daniel’s wife Esme is quietly mocked for her efforts to liven things up with dancing and a tennis club. Like her husband, Esme is fuelled by good intentions which are primed by a belief that things are done better elsewhere. She is relieved to make ‘a good work’ out of Bobby’s illiteracy, and encourages Irie with the lessons. For his part, Bobby enjoys his place on the margins of their family life, and despite the age difference between himself and Irie, he entertains fantasies about becoming part of the family at some time in the future.
The patterns of life in Mount Hay shift when Old Rosie reports that the local tearaway Ben Tobin has abducted her daughter. Everyone in town knows that Rosie has a grudge against Ben and is, consistent with her cultural belief in payback, using the police to stir up trouble for him. But Daniel arrests Ben and the young man does time in the Stuart gaol. And Ben, who has had a hard life with a brutal father, is known for payback of a different kind…
Throughout the text there are narrative devices which foreshadow the tragedy that unfolds. Bobby is writing from the perspective of a man made sadder and wiser by experience. The sense of loss of innocence pervades the novel from first page to last, despite its not entirely convincing conclusion. But the book also resounds with a sense of injustice, exposing the silence which for so long perverted the justice system in Queensland. Neither Ben nor Bobby can expect a fair go from the system, the media or the locals amongst whom they’d grown up. The only mercy comes from Alfred, a lawyer in far away Townsville, a man who knows Bobby better than Bobby knows himself. (Though I stand to be corrected, theoretically, Alfred’s refusal to take instructions is a breach of ethics).
I think that book groups would enjoy discussing some of the contentious issues arising from Coal Creek. What should the response be to a friendship between a young girl and an older man? What is the morality that lies behind a live-and-let-live attitude? And are there times when outsiders do know better?
Author: Alex Miller
Title: Coal Creek
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2013
Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $29.99
Fishpond: Coal Creek