Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 7, 2020

Small Town Rising, by Bill Green

I can’t find it on Bill’s blog now, but the catalyst for reading this book was a discussion at The Australian Legend about writers from the Mallee.  We were hard put to think of any, but when I consulted The Oxford Literary Guide to Australia I discovered the author Bill Green, and the Grisly Wife Bookshop had a copy of his novel Small Town Rising (1981).

Born in 1940, Green was brought up in the Mallee but from the jacket notes I have gathered that he was educated at Geelong College, and worked as a TV and newspaper reporter in America, Mexico, Southeast Asia and China. AusLit augments this with the information that he was the founding co-editor of the Saturday Review (later the Nation Review), was Press Secretary to Dr Jim Cairns and remained active in left-wing politics all his life though he never joined a party.  He founded the creative writing course at RMIT and specialised in teaching screen writing (which must surely mean that he did some screen writing himself).  He and his wife Helen ran Slightly Bent Books in Williamstown but moved it to Talbot in 2006.

AustLit cites the source for this information, tantalisingly, as ‘Novelist Created Own Plot Line with Future US Leader’ by John Timlin in The Age, 29/8/2011 i.e. not so long ago.  It turned out to be an obituary for Green, and it includes some interesting incidents from Green’s childhod that have made their way into the plot of Small Town Rising.  I also Googled Slightly Bent Books and found it still trading in Talbot under the stewardship of Helen Green, and I also found this article about the last days of the shop in Williamstown.)

AustLit lists 15 mentions, but Green wrote across genres.  Guessing from the publisher names and the designation of ‘novel’ as distinct from their tag ‘crime’ I reckon his adult novels include:

  • Small Town Rising, Macmillan, 1981
  • Freud and the Nazis Go Surfing, Pan Books, 1986
  • Compulsively Murdering Mao, Hodder & Stoughton 1989, and
  • Cleaning Up, Hodder & Stoughton 1993 (this one is tagged novel, satire)

There is correspondence with the Australian Book Review so he was a writer worthy of their notice, at least in 1985.  If anyone has access to the AustLit site beyond the five free views and can find out more about his work, I’d love to learn more.

Anyway, by the time Green came to write Small Town Rising he had moved on well beyond small town life, but he evokes it really well.  This is the blurb:

The smug tranquillity of the Victorian town of Strong Lake is shattered when the Mayor’s daughter is reportedly raped by a half-caste [sic]. The ‘alleged incident’ provokes a startling sequence of events from which few in the town emerge untouched.
Compassionate and merciless, Small Town Rising explores the prejudices and motivations of small town dwellers and finds within a wild mosaic that is a reflection of the attitudes, ideals and reactions of the country as a whole.
The encounters that both adults and children have with racial and sexual prejudices show how deeply conservative Australians have become; how it is only an outrageous sense of the ridiculous and the small rebellions that enable the people to remain human.

You can see from the use of the offensive term ‘half-caste’ that Australian publishing has come a long way since 1981.  Small Town Rising is a bit like Nene Gare’s The Fringe Dwellers — it wouldn’t get published today because these days Indigenous authors assert their right to tell their own stories and there are protocols for Non-Indigenous authors to follow.  But in 1961 The Fringe Dwellers was a landmark novel, revealing the injustices and racism that Indigenous Australians experienced every day.  Small Town Rising albeit published 20 years later is the same.  The plot features an Indigenous family of mixed heritage which distinguishes itself from the Indigenous camp across the river.  Tom Stirling and his family are treated differently, (up to a point, that is), by the non-Indigenous people of the town because they live in a house, their children go to school and the father has a steady job.  When there is a punch-up over the behaviour of the younger boy Chasa, Tom Stirling hits the aggrieved Clanger without repercussions, but only because he can call on his RSL mates with whom he served in the war, to take his part.  His children don’t have that same advantage, so he tells his older boy Linny never to hit White people because he is Indigenous and he’ll automatically be held to be at fault.  His wife also tells the children to keep away from the Blacks’ camp.

Needless to say, John, who was the instigator of the fire that spread to Clanger’s hay shed, isn’t held to account in the way that Chasa is, because John isn’t Indigenous.

The plot trajectory begins with an incident in a park.  The town mayor, the improbably named Henry Blossom, takes his family for a picnic, drinks too much, and wakes up from a snooze to catch a glimpse of his daughter Kay with Linny.  Despite Kay saying repeatedly that nothing happened, this leads to Tom being in the bizarre situation of having his son accused of a rape he didn’t do, and his daughter Clare being raped by a white man who thinks he’s entitled to do it because she’s Indigenous.

Aided and abetted by Blossom, Vince the town policeman is a textbook racist with an inflated view of his own power.  He also has corrupt relationships within the town, and not just turning a blind eye to late night drinking at the pub.  He is aggressively racist, and is excited by the prospect of having a rape case to liven up his mundane existence even though there is no evidence that would convict Linny, or even bring him to committal. He and Blossom decide to ‘purge’ the town of the Blacks across the river and he gets some like-minded thugs to help.  It’s not a massacre, but the destruction of their camp is emblematic of Indigenous powerlessness and dispossession.

There are numerous issues raised by this novel:

  • casual and explicit racism;
  • a cleavage between Indigenous people living in poverty in camps and educated Indigenous people living approved ‘white’ lives;
  • the clannishness of mates who served in WW2 and the RSL;
  • the investigation, prosecution and problematic nature of rape cases, and the trauma for the women involved;
  • the instant prejudice against People of Colour and the assumption that they are depraved sexual predators against white women;
  • the routine use of Black women in the camp for sex;
  • ‘free-range’ children; and
  • the untrammelled power of rural police.

Green also shows the powerlessness of people wanting change, who can’t achieve it because there are too few of them, and they are divided. There might even be an autobiographical element to the character of ‘Richard’, the university student who attends the protest meeting called to prevent the purge of the camp on the river.  This protest meeting is called by Dr Chaplin Cavett, the well-meaning but ineffectual father of Chasa’s mate John.  Cavett is at odds with the school principal Alf, who wants to set up a segregated school which (reminiscent of the mission schools) would educate and ‘discipline’ the Blacks.  Both these well-meaning but patronising men are startled by Richard’s radical new ideas about Indigenous people being entitled to make their own decisions about matters that affect them.

This is a well-intentioned novel but there are some flaws. The structure makes it harder than it needs to be to keep track of a large cast of characters, and my feminist hackles were aroused by the way a rape victim ‘gets over it’ when we all know that they don’t, and we knew that even in 1981 when this book was published.  Also, from a past life with the Ex, I have considerable knowledge of the workings of the Crown Prosecutor’s Office and the Circuit Courts in that era so I know that some aspects of the court case are just plain wrong so the reader has to allow some poetic licence.

But what really makes this book difficult to read is the depiction of racist language, from casual unintended insults to outright abuse.  It seems all too realistic, and it’s awful to read, really awful, and made more so because we know that there are still instances of this everyday racism even today.

My final free view from AustLit tells me that Helen Daniel reviewed Small Town Rising, in The Age 25/7/1981 p.29 but alas, I can’t find it at Trove…

Author: Bill Green
Title: Small Town Rising
Cover: ‘Monto in landscape’ by Gil Jamieson (1978)
Publisher: Macmillan, 1981
ISBN: 0333337301, hbk., 167 pages
Source: The Grisly Wife Bookshop, $29.95

Availability: out of print.


Responses

  1. I’m glad that Indigenous authors are the ones telling Indigenous stories now. Leaves Anglo authors to concentrate on reversing two centuries of whitewashing, as begun by Thea Astley and it seems Bill Green. And no I don’t remember either where we wrote that string of Mallee road trip comments which I have yet to turn into a post as promised.

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    • Yes, but don’t forget Eleanor Dark. I really must try and source more of her work.
      Re our discussion… If you can be bothered, open All Posts, and enter ‘Mallee’ into the search box…

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      • I often reference A Timeless Land. Neil@Kallaroo is going to review it for Gen 3 Week Part II. And I really must read the following two books.
        I’ll have to think of something more specific than Mallee to search on, maybe Sea Lake.

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        • I have a special fondness for Eleanor Dark. Hers was the first real Australian novel that I read. We had the Victorian Readers at school, and so I’d come across Lawson, and Mary Grant Bruce and a lot of poets, and I’d won a couple of school prizes but the books were rather forgettable. But when I won No Barrier I was 15 and just starting to read real novels from my parents’ shelves. None of them were Australian so No Barrier was a revelation to me.

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        • PS If it helps, I remember that I specifically mentioned Bill Green and Small Town Rising because I’d looked him up in Peter Pierce’s book.

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  2. Hi Lisa, I think you’re a bit hard on Bill Green. Thea Astley uses the term “half-caste” in “The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow” and I don’t think you complained about that. I managed to get hold of a second-hand copy of Green’s “Freud and the Nazis go Surfing”, which I have just finished. I was expecting the coming-of-age story of a sixteen-year-old boy, but in fact it is a deeply shocking portrait of casual violence and anti-Semitism in a seaside holiday town in Victoria, culminating in horrifying descriptions of bush fires which appear to have been started deliberately. The sexual excitement experienced by the arsonist is not described but clearly implied, and the very Freudian resolution is deeply disturbing. The fact that Green describes these things does not, I think, imply that he approved of them – quite the reverse. And the narrator’s coldly factual accounts of the bullying he endured at his boarding school makes me wonder what happened to Green at Geelong. I don’t know if “Freud and the Nazis” is a masterpiece, but I don’t think I’ll be able to forget it for a long time. – Paul

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    • Hello Ernest, thanks for sharing your experience of reading Freud and the Nazis Go Surfing, I’m curious about where you found your copy:)

      But re, offensive terms… you’re right, Astley uses the same term, but I didn’t quote her so I didn’t need to make it explicit that it’s not a word I personally would ever use. And what I’ve quoted is not from the novel, it’s from the dust-jacket, which I found interesting, because Green’s use of racist language is to demonstrate what Indigenous people had to put up with, whereas the dustjacket is demonstrating the same kind of ‘casual’ racism that the novel deplores.
      I *do * find it hard to read books about the ill-treatment of Indigenous people… and I think it’s important to warn any potential Indigenous readers about what they might find.

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      • Oddly enough I got my copy through Amazon France, who had a second-hand copy supplied by Thrift Books in the USA! I take your point that the offensive term was on the dust-jacket, but surely you can’t blame Green for that? Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a copy of “Small Town Rising” (or any other book by Green apart from “Freud …”), so I can’t make a direct comparison with Astley’s book. Regards, Paul

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        • Paul, you misunderstand me, I’m not blaming Green for anything. I call it “a landmark novel, revealing the injustices and racism that Indigenous Australians experienced every day.” I list the issues he raises. I think I’ve made it clear that I admire his intentions, though they would not pass the different protocols that are emerging today. I don’t blame him for that, and I don’t blame him for his realistic depictions. But I do find them awful to read. They make me cringe, and I think it’s only fair to warn potential Indigenous readers in particular about what to expect.

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          • Yes, I’m sorry, I clearly misunderstood you, but the full quotation is “in 1961 The Fringe Dwellers was a landmark novel, revealing the injustices and racism that Indigenous Australians experienced every day. Small Town Rising albeit published 20 years later is the same.” So it wasn’t clear to me that you were also calling “Small Town Rising” a landmark novel. I mentioned that I found “Freud and the Nazis …” shocking and disturbing, but I think that a novel can shock and disturb us and also be worth reading. On my first visit to Australia I was as shocked as you are by the racism I observed – perhaps more so – but I don’t see why non-Aboriginals should not still write about it.

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            • Well, *chuckle* that is indeed a contentious issue in these days of identity politics, and both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have strong feelings about it either way. I attended a workshop about it with Bruce Pascoe, who took us through the protocols which should be followed, and I see evidence of these being followed in some more recent novels which I think is a good thing, and of course Indigenous people are telling their own stories, which is a good thing too.
              To give you an example of how I think Green would do things differently these days…
              When he is portraying the cleavage between Indigenous people living in poverty in camps and educated Indigenous people living approved ‘white’ lives, (which no doubt existed), he does not show why the camp dwellers were choosing to live together or what Tom Stirling has lost by being divorced from his Indigenous roots. Today, a writer would recognise the bonds of family, the storytelling to pass on culture, and the connection to land. Showing this would actually make the dispossession when the camp is forced away from the river even more striking than it is in Green’s rendering of it. It would show that Stirling, for all that he has material comforts far superior to theirs, is dispossessed of his culture and family connections.
              But this is 2020 and Bill Green wrote his novel forty years ago before the emergence of Indigenous writing that has taught us so much more than he could possibly have known at that time…

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