Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 30, 2011

The Roving Party, by Rohan Wilson (2011 Vogel winner)

The Roving PartyMy first response, when I started reading The Roving Party was to realise that I knew nothing about Tasmanian Aborigines except that no full-blood Aboriginal people from this part of Australia survived colonisation.  I knew that their descendants survive, and have suffered the ignominy of being denied their Aboriginality by some people.  These critics – while conveniently discriminating against these descendants for not being ‘White’ enough – are not willing to acknowledge that descendants of Aboriginal women – who were abducted or raped by Tasmania’s earliest settlers and the sealers who visited Tasmania and its offshore islands – are entitled to claim their heritage.  But when my tongue rebelled against the pronunciation of Panninher and Plindermairhemener in Rohan Wilson’s Vogel Prize winning novel, I realised that I did not even know the names of the Tasmanian tribes that existed for millennia in my own country.  I am not proud to admit that until fairly recently I knew more of the names of Native American Indians than I did of Australia’s Aboriginal peoples.

And yet I love the sussuration of Aboriginal languages.  My state retains many Aboriginal place names, from Warrnambool to Narre Warren to Murrumbeena.  The original owners of my side of Melbourne are the Wurundjeri and the Bunerong.  The murmur of those soft syllables appeals to my sense of the Australian landscape.  These are sounds that belong intimately to the land, the wind wandering across our vast plains; the rustle of our gum trees in the dawn; the sizzle of rain on rocks baked by a scorching sun; the muddle of insect life; the hesitant creek that knows its fate as drought strikes.

Rohan Wilson’s debut novel has revealed the Plindermairhemener as one of the peoples who inhabited Tasmania from time out of mind, and he gives voice to these people by using their language in this book.  It gives the work authenticity and power. For while the sordid tale of human brutality in 1829 is fiction, it is based on extensive scholarship – and such is the power of Wilson’s prose that I believe in the novel’s truth.  I know, at an emotional level, that if not these, then some other people now lost, engaged in these events.  It is our history.

The Roving Party tells an horrific story.  Nothing in the massacre histories of our nation can equal the emotional response I felt when reading about this group of men – at the behest of the Governor – tramping through the Tasmanian bush hunting the indigenous people as if they were vermin.  And the hunters are not all white: the party consists of John Batman; four convicts hoping to earn a ticket-of-leave; a gormless farmhand; two blacktrackers from Parramatta and Black Bill, the Vandemonian brought up and educated as a white man.

When one man is killed in cold blood and another remarks that ‘You cant [sic] murder a black…any more than you can murder a cat’ (p99) the sense of outrage is visceral, for the speaker is Black Bill who despite his upbringing speaks the language of the Plindermairhemener and knows their culture intimately.  This powerful man is an enigma: we are not privy to his thoughts, only his words and deeds.  What, for example, should the reader make of this exchange:

Batman screwed up his eyes in the low winter sun.  I’d say the blacks have given up on this pasture.
Bill drank again from the canteen and recorked it as he began walking off along the track.  They can no more give it up than you can give up yer hands and feet, he said.

Is that a rebuke? Or a sardonic rejoinder?  Or does a man denied his heritage interpret the love of land as  merely the instinct of an animal attached to its territory??  What does a man who belongs in neither culture really think about this barbaric enterprise in which he plays a leading role?  What really is his motivation?

It’s chilling to read dialogue in this novel because it is as it must have been among those frontier search parties out to massacre the Aborigines, and the brutality depicted on both sides is not for the faint-hearted.  But Wilson’s economic prose lets the reader fill in the gaps, and as I showed in my previous Sensational Snippet, his descriptions of the land are very powerful indeed.

It’s really exciting to discover a strong new voice in Australian fiction writing powerful stories about important things.  I heard Rohan Wilson speak on the panel for the Native Titles session at the Melbourne Writers Festival – and I was very impressed by his grasp of the complexities of writing about Australia’s Aboriginal history and his courage in tackling controversial aspects of it. This is a writer with a great future in Australian literature.

There are some  great reviews of this book.  Check out Geordie Williamson at The Australian, Hannah Kent at Kill Your Darlings and Patricia Maunder at the Radio National Book Show.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Rohan Wilson
Title: The Roving Party
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2011
ISBN: 9781742376530
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $27.99

Availability:
Fishpond:The Roving Party


Responses

  1. As someone born and schooled in Tasmania, it behoves me to comment. the only thing I was taught about my the history of Indigenous Tasmanians was the name Truganini: we primary school students were taught that she was ‘the last Tasmanian Aboriginal woman’.
    Many years later I read and studied ‘Dr Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World’, an historical novel by Mudrooroo (Colin Johnson) and felt shamed and saddened on a number of levels.
    My despair hit a low note when my readings unearthed a number of spellings and pronunciations for the name attached to the Tasmanian Education system’s symbolic Indigenous woman – the main three being Truganini, Trucaminni and Trugernanner (which is now generally accepted as the ‘correct’ spelling). It seems like a final (trivial by comparison) insult.
    Thanks for the review.

  2. After hearing the author speak at MWF I definitely want to read this book now! I think I am going to have to buy it when I go on Saturday as there is no sign of it on my library catalogue yet.

    • I used to have this problem at my local library a while back, when they went through a phase of ignoring Australian literary fiction. I suggest two things: a friendly letter to the Chief Librarian enquiring about purchasing policies, and also making enquiries about inter-library loans. If you look up The Roving Party on World Cat http://www.worldcat.org/title/roving-party/oclc/726092770&referer=brief_results you can see where your nearest library is that has it and you can ask your local library to do an inter-library loan for you. Since it’s not a very expensivve book to buy, – and you can mention that it’s an award winning book when you make your enquiry – they may feel that it’s less trouble to buy it than to mess about doing the inter-library loan.

      • Usually they aren’t too bad, but no sign of kim Scott’s book or this one! If I put an ILL request in (which I use all the time) they might buy it, but I think I might just splurge

  3. […] Toosey is a veteran of the Black War about which Wilson wrote so evocatively in The Roving Party.  He is a hard man, brutalised by years of poverty and violence, his own childhood destroyed by […]

  4. […] Mears and Brian Castro, and more recently Christine Piper (After Darkness) and Rohan Wilson (The Roving Party) amongst others.  This year, however, the award takes me out of my comfort zone because it was […]


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