Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 14, 2019

Paris Savages (2019), by Katherine Johnson

I reserved this impressive book at the library about a month ago after I read Jennifer’s review at Goodreads and was not disappointed.  (Jennifer blogs at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large). It’s a remarkable book.

It brought three other books to mind: Jane Sullivan’s Little People which is a novel about people of short stature touring as exhibits (see my review here); Paddy O’Reilly’s The Wonders which exposes the morbid curiosity that lies behind not just the freak shows of the 19th century but also those contemporary ‘human interest’ stories that feature disabled people (see my review here); and Anouk Ride’s The Grand Experiment which I read before I started this blog.  A non-fiction account of real events and based on thorough research, The Grand Experiment is a different kind of Stolen Generations story, in which two young Nyungar boys were taken to Italy by a Benedictine monk from the New Norcia Monastery in WA, to become monks themselves.  They went, apparently, with parental permission, and the plan was well-intentioned, the monks hoping to offer education and opportunities the boys could not have had on the mission. They met the Pope and other notables, but the extent of the education they purportedly received is dubious since neither left a written record. Conaci died in Europe, and Dirimera died soon after returning to Australia.


Paris Savages explores themes which arose from my reading of those three books.  To what extent could ‘exhibits’ in a human zoo have any agency over the way they were represented, when the entire exercise was based on ambitions the participants did not share? In what ways could they be said to have given informed consent? How could they possibly have known what they were in for? Johnson’s novel, based on thorough research, depicts the cultural shock that Anouk Ride discussed, and with the same difficulties: the documentary record is scanty, and there is no record at all of the Indigenous point-of-view.  The author’s note at the beginning of the book explains how she resolved this issue:

According to a retrospective on the subject in Paris in 2012, worldwide, between 1800 and 1958, over a billion spectators attended such acts, marvelling at more than 35,000 individuals, significantly influencing view on ‘race’.

That latter date astonished me. These offensive forms of mass entertainment can’t be consigned to the 19th century.  They were still occurring during my childhood.

Johnson then refers the readers to the Afterword to see her sources, and then goes on to say…

Paris Savages builds on these scant records to envisage the story of Bonny, Jurano and Dorondera, Badtjala/Butchulla people from K’gari (Fraser Island).  Rather than assuming Aboriginal viewpoints, the story is told through fictional characters related in the novel to the German engineer Louis Müller, who is known to have transported the group to Europe. (p.ix)

Johnson’s achievement is to expose the human cost of Müller’s ‘scientific’ ambitions.  Bonny, Jurano and Dorondera agree to go because the Badtjala people are in decline after the massacres which accompany being dispossessed from their land, and Bonny hopes to be able to bring their plight to Queen Victoria’s personal attention so that she will intervene.  The plan is that they will travel to England after being exhibited in Europe, and nobody disabuses them of the improbability of such a meeting.  By narrating the story mostly from the point of view of Müller’s teenage daughter Hilda, Johnson shows the journey from naïveté to full awareness of betrayal.  Müller always caves in to unconscionable exploitation of the people in his care, not just because he is under financial pressure because of the costs involved, but also because he shares the prevailing pseudo-scientific ideas of the German entrepreneurs and the scientists they use to justify what they are doing.

Some of the episodes in this novel are really harrowing.  Apart from the indignity of being housed in accommodation that meant they were always, always on show, and being forced to be ‘authentic’ which meant they were only supposed to speak Badtjala when in fact Bonny could speak German well, the process of constantly measuring their bodies and facial features also included having plaster casts made for display.  Johnson depicts this claustrophobic experience in all its horror.  Hilda is a close observer of all these events and she tries as best she can to intervene, handicapped by her distress at her father’s betrayals of the ideals he seemed to have shared with Hilda’s dead mother, and also by the dissonance in her own identity.  On the island of K’gari, she was independent and autonomous.  In Germany she is constrained by ideas about how young women should behave, and any assertiveness on behalf of her Badtjala friends is frowned upon.  As mutual feelings of attraction develop between Hilda and Bonny, she also finds herself constrained by the prevailing racism: it seems to be acceptable for a European man to be attracted to Dorondera, but the idea of a European woman being attracted to Bonny is shocking.

Like The Grand Experiment, Paris Savages is a different slant on Stolen Generations.  These three Badtjala people had their lives stolen by false promises and betrayals.  Johnson’s novel brings this shameful episode to life in a way that readers won’t forget.

See also Theresa Smith’s review.

Author: Katherine Johnson
Title: Paris Savages
Publisher: Ventura Press, 2019, 352 pages
ISBN: 9781925384703
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond:Paris Savages



  1. It is an impressive novel, isn’t it? I am pleased my review lead you to it (as so frequently your reviews lead me to other books…)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, this is when the online reading community really works !

      Liked by 2 people

      • PS Jennifer, can you please add a search box to your RH menu? I wanted to link to the review on your blog but I couldn’t find it.


  2. A harrowing story indeed and I’m glad – as you might guess – that the author uses the viewpoint of the German girl. I’m one or two years older than you and a country boy. I remember the Aboriginal and Maori boxers in the travelling tent shows, but I don’t remember ever seeing the “midgets” and “giantesses” of legend.


    • I’m glad you approve!
      No, seriously, I think this is an innovative way of imagining a perspective without claiming to speak ‘on behalf of’, I don’t think I’ve seen this done before.
      It has limitations, obviously, because the narrator is a teenage girl, and some readers might feel that a C21st sensibility has been inserted into the past, but here it really serves the purpose and if you could see in the Afterword the extent to which this author has so respectfully tackled this project, I think you would be impressed.

      Liked by 1 person

      • C21st sensibility is always the limitation of Hist.Fic. but sometimes it is the best we have. It is interesting reading The Scarlett Letter for instance to think that it was written 200 years after the time but still Hawthorne’s perspective is a hundred and whatever years better than ours.


        • Yes, that’s true indeed.
          And I would rather someone thought about these issues in a way that might not be 100% authentic than not think about them at all.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I had a feeling you would appreciate this one!


  4. One to add to my list (and that cover! Sublime).


    • Yes, though if you check out online suppliers, you will see that there are also some very different covers…


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