Monthly Archives: March 2009

‘Silent and still’?

What you talkin’ about, Kevin?


From The Age:

Speaking from the abbey pulpit, Mr Rudd said the fires had been an “assault on the soul” for Australians.

“For Australians, the world suddenly became silent and still on Black Saturday, silent and still as we confronted the overwhelming power of nature and the overwhelming terror of fire,” he said.

“We, as Australians, were left speechless in its wake.”

Silent and still?  Not on that Saturday it wasn’t.  Not for the people actually in the fires, with the fire roaring and screaming over the hills towards them.  Not for the people of Melbourne, listening to the  chatter and urgency of radio reports all day that somehow seemed to miss the intensity and horror of it all.  Not when the wind changed.

Silent and still the next morning, perhaps.  When we woke to hear of whole, familiar places devastated; when the death toll kept rising and rising; when you realized that everyone knew someone.  That was when all meaning seemed to leach from everyday life, that was when we became speechless.

Let’s not rewrite it just for the sake of imagery and a good speech.

Little Historians

I see that the History Teachers Association of Australia has raised questions about the primary school component of the proposed national history curriculum.  Good on them.  As a member of the Heidelberg Historical Society, I had a brief peek at the consultation draft which recommended that local history be introduced at primary school level.   I had no problem with the idea of arousing children’s curiosity about the street, suburb and town in which they live, but the “core components of historical understanding”  seem to be a trifle…um….optimistic?

How does this sound for an 8-12 year old?

“examine and critically assess the value of available primary and secondary sources, study human motivation, develop an understanding of viewpoints held by the people of the past, and recognize causal relationships between events and draw conclusions about their historical investigations”.

Have the stages of conceptual development suddenly been thrown out the window?? What happened to my good friend Piaget??  The last time I spoke to an 8-12 year old (which, admittedly, has not occurred recently), I was not particularly struck with their insight into human motivation.

And to be honest, I’m still grappling with these core components with historical understanding today.  Perhaps I need to find a 9 year old to show me how.

‘Lawless Harvests’ by Alex Castles


2003, 209 p.

As a primary school child in the 1960s, there were certain stationery items that your parents had to buy for you each year.  They always had to buy two HB pencils and a red-lead pencil that would kill you if you sucked the end of it (surely not?).  There was the 12-pack of Cumberland pencils that always looked insipid and cheap against the 24-pack Derwent pencils that the luckier kids had, with that brilliant aqua and lush bright green that even now gives me pleasure.   There was the pack of Greyhound Dry Pastels that went unopened all year until they crumbled to dust in your desk.  And then there was the plastic stencil map of Australia, with the states marked out with a thin line except for Victoria, where the boundary with NSW seemed to inexplicably dribble out into a series of dots on the right hand side.

It must have been a source of much chagrin for school children on the Apple Isle (Tasmania) to realize that their own state was left off the map.  No doubt having the little island dangling below Victoria added a level of complexity and expense to the manufacturing task that was not worth the effort.  And so, if you remembered Tasmania at all, you had to hand-draw it, down below Victoria somewhere.

Yet when looking at Port Phillip in the 1840s, one is struck by the dominance of Van Diemens Land on the new settlement.  George Town at the mouth of the Tamar River was much closer to Port Phillip than Sydney, 600 miles away.  Trade was frequent between Hobart, George Town and Port Phillip, and it was largely the scarcity of  available land after a heavy bout of land-grant activity in the late 1820s/early 1830s that drew men’s eyes northwards across Bass Strait.  Just as men and stock meandered down from the settled districts of New South Wales, so too did ship after ship from Van Diemens Land disgorge sheep that moved into farms throughout the Port Phillip district.

New South Wales dominates our awareness of early colonial Australia, but Van Diemens Land runs alongside it as a parallel but separate colonial entity.  Although the NSW Governor was officially Governor-in-Chief,  from 1825 onwards he played no active role in the administration of Van Diemens Land. The Van Diemens Land Lieutenant-Governor styled himself “His Excellency” (suggesting that there was no immediate superior) rather than the “His Honor” title that he had used up until this date, and the Tasmanian Supreme Court, officially proclaimed on 31 March 1824 was a separate entity in its own right rather than an arm of the Supreme Court of New South Wales as Judge Willis’ Port Phillip court was.

Alex Castle’s book, published posthumously in 2003 tells the story of the Van Diemens Land legal system.   The book had its genesis in a plan by the Law Society of Tasmania in 1985 to commission a history of the legal profession in Tasmania.  Professor Alex Castles from Adelaide University offered to write it, with a view to publication during the Law Society’s centenary year in 1988.  But only 3 chapters were written at that stage, and focus shifted to the 28th Australian Legal Convention to be held in September 1993.  By May of that year, twelve chapters had been completed and the final chapter was in draft form.  However it was never editted sufficiently for publication and the manuscript remained unpublished in a filing cabinet.  In 2003, after the death of Professor Alex Castles, the Law Society remembered the part-completed manuscript, and engaged its librarian to retrieve the text, and Dr Stefan Petrow to edit it, write an introduction and epilogue and compile a bibliography, as the text itself does not have footnotes.

In his introduction, Stefan Petrow discusses this book in relation to Castles’ other work, particularly his pioneering textbook 1971  ‘Introduction to Legal History’.  In this textbook, Castles concentrated on the English influences on the Australian legal System but Petrow detects  a movement in Castles’ work in later years that acknowledged local variation, particularly in frontier legal environments.  I wonder if Castles had written the introduction himself,  how he would have addressed himself to this question.

This book traces through the earliest legal steps in Van Diemens Land, which are hard to recover because the papers were burnt on the evening of  Lieutenant Governor Collins’ death- possibly to obscure legal decisions made during his time of office.   Collins’ successor Davey was completely out of his depth, and it was William Sorell, the next Lieutenant- Governor who reordered local affairs.  But the main focus of the book is on Lieutenant George Arthur and his devolution of power to himself, with the acquiescence of his fellow-Tory Supreme Court judge Pedder.   Castles credits Sir John Franklin (yes,  the villain of Richard Flanagan’s Wanting) with introducing the legal changes resisted for so many years by Arthur.  He traces through the amoval of the puisne judge Algernon Montagu and the attempted amoval of Pedder by Franklin’s successor Denison over the taxation-like nature of the Dog Act-  the same process of amoval (but for different reasons) which finished off Judge Willis’ career.

One thing that I very much appreciated in this book was the way that each chapter started anew with a little vignette or anecdote that piqued the reader’s interest anew.  He finished each chapter a similar way too, often returning to the episode with which he opened the chapter.  In between things got a little turgid, with a very ‘top-down’ perspective running throughout, but the openings and closings of each chapter remedied this.  I’m not sure that Castles himself would have finished the book with the what-happened-next epilogue that Petrow wrote-  the book suffers from the lack of a strong, argumentative final chapter.  However, it would have been beyond the ethical and editorial demands on Petrow to have written anything beyond what he has done.

‘Human Smoke’ by Nicholson Baker


2008, 474 p + 53 p notes

I hadn’t heard anything about this book, or its author for that matter, until I heard an interview with Nicholson Baker on Radio National’s Book Show.  It was quite clear that he was speaking as a novelist rather than an historian, and yet he said a couple of things in the interview that resonated with my own research and narrative problems that I’m grappling with.

I wish the interview were still available or a transcript saved, but neither of these is available. From the brief notes I took during the interview, he said something like the following:

1. Find the hero in your story.  This is something that I’ve been struggling with.   I don’t consider the subject of my story- Judge Willis- to be a hero: in fact,  I don’t think I like him much at all.  So who is my hero?  Whose voice and worldview  do I trust?  Of the colourful cast of players on the Port Phillip stage in 1841-3, I’d go for  Superintendent La Trobe, I think, in spite of (or is it because of ? ) his insecurity, his anxiety, his concern not to be hasty or judgemental.

Or is the endeavour to find a hero anti-historical in itself?  In our search for a ‘hero’, are we only responding to those from the past who display elements of a 21 century sensibility that we recognize as kindred spirits.  What about the men of their time who are thoroughly imbued with attitudes of deference or unruffability that we find unacceptable today?  Or are we looking for a common humanity beyond this?   Inga Clendinnen, in her Dancing with Strangers introduces the writers of the First Fleet journals she is basing her work on, and shares with us her own emotional responses to her informants’ writing:

Jane Austen exclaimed that her naval-officer brothers ‘write so even, so clear, both in style and penmanship, so much to the point, and give so much intelligence, that it is enough to kill one’. In her novels she allowed herself to become positively girlish in her effusions of admiration for naval men like Fanny’s brother William or Anne Elliot’s Captain Wentworth, and quite lost her characteristic irony when she considered the nobility of their profession.

I confess that as I read John Hunter’s journal I felt something of the same flutter.  I liked what he said and I liked his silences too.  (p 37)

and in relation to Watkin Tench:

He is one of the handful of writers who are an unshadowed pleasure to meet on the page.  Through that familiar miracle of literacy where pothooks transform into personality, it is not so much his information as his presence which delights us.  His parents are said to have run a dancing academy, and it is tempting to think that their son’s grace on the page has something to do with a melodious, light-footed upbringing.  He has the kind of charm which reaches easily across centuries.  If he lacks Montaigne’s intellectual sophistication and unwavering moral clarity, he shares with him the even rarer quality of sunny self irony. (p. 57)

I think that a historian does adopt a stance towards her informants.  It’s not that you suspend criticism or disbelief, but there are some informants who have you rolling your eyes and inwardly groaning “Here we go again“; or conversely who make you sit up and think “Now what makes you say that?”

2. Sometimes what’s written in the papers is more true than what you’ll find in “secret” archives. Leaving aside the whole issue of “truth”, I’ve been thinking about the issue of temporal change and temporal persistence for some time.  And I’ve also been reading newspapers very, very closely, watching how a controversy builds, subsides, lingers, re-emergences- a sort of time-lapse examination that is elided when taking a purely thematic approach.  In my own research into Judge Willis, there were issues that  niggled month after month; there were personality clashes that played out in different contexts over time.  There were false rumours, there was bombast and exaggeration- and as Nicholson Baker pointed out, the actors themselves were reading (and contributing) to this media construction of events each morning too.

So what has Nicholson Baker done in this book?

I was interested to note that the book was catalogued with a 940 Dewey number in the university library, and lists its subjects heading on the edition notice page as” 1. World War, 1939-45- Causes  2. Jews- Persecutions- Europe-History.”  Yet the book starts abruptly in August 1892 and ends on New Years Eve 1941.  It is a series of snippets, many taken from the  New York Times,or diaries or memoirs arranged chronologically, each one a page or less in length,  separate and disembodied from the preceding one and  surrounded by much white space on the page.  There are no chapters, no commentary, no debate, no authorial interjection.  There is a long series of  sources at the end of the book.  And that’s all.

And yet the author is very much there.  His selection of the closing days of 1941 (immediately post-Pearl Harbour) reflects his American worldview, and there is a degree of artifice in treating newspaper articles written in real-time with memoirs written after the event.  He has found his heroes: Gandhi, pacifists, Stefan Zwieg, Victor Klemperer.   He’s found his villains too, and you can almost hear his sharpening his knife. He selects his events without a stated rationale, but with solid intent:  the anti-semitism and blood-lust of Churchill, Britain’s food blockade of Europe,  the testing of chemical weapons in the Middle East,  America’s refusal to take Jewish refugees, the insistent voices of pacifists throughout the war, the commercial entanglement of America in the war through supply of technology, planes and arms,  America’s goading of Japan to enter the war.  Even though he presents these as snippets,  there is an argument here: an argument that debunks especially Churchill but also Roosevelt; that blurs the line between the “good guys” and the “bad guys”;  that has a whiff of moral superiority in relation to the pacifists.  You are very much aware that it is written with a  post-9/11, post-Iraq sensibility.

Inga Clendinnen also had this to say in Dancing with Strangers:

It is a commonplace rediscovered every decade or so that individuals see what they see from their own particular perspective, and that perspectives change through time.  These disenchanted days we know that there are no I-am-a-camera  observers, and we also know that even cameras lie.  This recognition has not stopped would-be historians from piecing together snippets derived from a range of narratives, perspectives and sensibilities in chronological order, and  calling the resulting ribbon patchwork ‘objective history’. (p. 12)

Nicholson Baker has done exactly this- pieced together snippets derived from a range of narratives- and has reworked them into an almost formulaic vignette, often ending with the date “It was 15 March 2009”.  There’s a flatness of tone, a disembodiment that is unnerving and yet oddly compelling too.

Many historians and academics hated this book.   John Lukacs (who has written several books on Churchill) didn’t hold back : “This book is bad”.  Louis Menand (who wrote The Metaphysical Club) writes:

Baker is trying to eliminate the historian’s interpretive gloss in the interests of respecting the rawness of the primary experience. He seems to think that the facts speak for themselves. But facts never speak for themselves. We speak for them. The historian’s gloss matters (not to mention all the facts that are left out): it provides the reader with intellectual traction, an ability to weigh the claims being put forward to justify the selection of facts. Baker’s presentation may seem empirical—these things happened, you can look them up, no varnish has been applied—but the effect is entirely emotional, because there is no nesting argument, no narrative, to give events a context. It’s a tabloid technique: a six-word quotation or a single image is all you need to understand any issue. The pretense of no manipulation is completely manipulative.

A. C. Grayling was less critical, largely because he agrees with Baker’s intention and argument, rather than his methods.  Dominic Sandbrook likewise, approved the endeavour  but excoriated the methodology

In the end, then, its unorthodox style cannot compensate for the basic mendaciousness, even fraudulence, of this extraordinarily self-righteous book. In my student days, I was taught that a historian should aim to represent the past as fairly and honestly as possible. Of course opinions matter; there is nothing duller than a history book without an argument. But by presenting us with such skewed and partial material, Baker gives us a book that cheapens the serious moral arguments he tries to make. Whatever its merits as a work of literature, as a work of history it is virtually worthless.

So, among such exalted and vociferous opinion, what do I think?  I’m not a WWII historian, so I cannot dispute the facts as, say, Lukacs does.  This book has a broad sweep- not unlike a searchlight scanning the skies- lighting up India, Iraq, even Bob Menzies has his moment in the spotlight.   It represents a slow unfurling of events, rather than a shaped and honed argument.  I found it more compelling than I would have expected- we do, after all, know how it all ended.

But I am wary of something that purports to be “just the facts” and there is a dishonesty about the deliberate absence of the author- he’s there alright, it’s just that he’s pretending not to be.

Some figures

The other day I was reading through the Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Council for the 1840s (as one does) , and looking at the Statistical Returns for 1834-43, which were printed in June 1844.

There I found a table of the official figures of whites killed by Aborigines, and conversely, Aborigines killed by whites for the district of Port Phillip.  These are, of course, the ridgy-didge “official” figures- the sort that Keith Windschuttle in his Fabrication of Aboriginal History upheld-  with all that entails.


1836 2
1838 12 10 + 1 +1
1839 3
1840 11
1841 6 + 2 The two were murdered by the Van Diemen’s Land blacks
1842 4
1843 1
1844 1

Total: 40


1836 1
1838 16
1839 8
1840 67 30 by the Whyte Brothers- rests on Aboriginal evidence. 10 in Grampians by Messrs Wedge, depends partly on Aboriginal evidence
1841 10 Based on statements by Aborigines
1842 6 4 at Smith and Osbrey’s station – great investigation and 3 persons tried and acquitted
1843 3 In one event at Mr Rickett’s
1844 2


I’m surprised that the figures are so low on the white side.  Given the heightened anxiety and dread expressed by settlers on the frontier, I’m surprised that there are not more white deaths.  However, many attacks involved property loss- particularly the hacking and killing of sheep- and given that stock (rather than the ownership of land) formed the basis of wealth in this pastoral squatting society, these attacks were property crimes that struck at the heart of the settlers’ financial viability.   The low figures on the aboriginal side are more to be expected. The figures for black deaths had to be corroborated by white evidence.  There was little to be gained in reporting an aboriginal death.  If  an aboriginal was  “said to be” killed, on aboriginal evidence only, then it was not counted.  You’ll note the qualification of  “based on statements by Aborigines” in the third column.

The statistics for whites killed show that overwhelmingly these deaths occured among hutkeepers, shepherds and servants.  These men were isolated, often far from the homestead (such as it was),  far from surveillance and likewise far from assistance.  They were also often assigned servants or ex-convicts.  Only four of the 40 were designated as “Mr —“, and only one was categorized as a settler.

The large spike in both white and native deaths in 1838 was because of the six-hour pitched battle that took place on Faithful’s station near Benalla, in retaliation for the massacre of 10-14 of Faithful’s workers (the official figure shows 10; Faithful claims 14).  I quoted Faithful’s description of the retaliatory battle  in my post on Letters from Victorian Pioneers.

I find it interesting that the Whyte brothers are named so openly here, and in the Letters from Victorian Pioneers.    The aboriginal deaths in 1840 around Whyte’s station in Coleraine came to be known as the Fighting Hills Massacre.  The Whyte brothers reported the attack themselves.  No charges were ever laid.

The trial of the men charged with the aboriginal deaths at Smith and Osbrey’s station occurred right at the point when Judge Willis was dismissed as Resident Judge.  The murders had occurred in February 1842 and a 50 pound reward was offered, later increased to 100 pounds with a free pardon and a free passage to England if the informant was a transported convict.  Nothing was heard, until a transported ‘bush carpenter’ employed at the station reported a number of men for the murder in May 1843.  Three men- Hill, Beswicke and Betts were committed to trial and it was, in fact, this case that Judge Willis was hearing when the court was interrupted by the serving of the Executive Order for Willis’ amoval.  Justice Jeffcott, who was Judge Willis’ replacement, took over the trial and the men were acquitted.  Gipps privately wrote to La Trobe that if he had been on the jury, he would have committed at least two of the three men, but Jeffcott was “not dissatisfied with the verdict”.


Richard Broome Aboriginal Australians pp.40-48

A. G. L. Shaw The History of the Port Phillip District p.  114,130,138

Paul R Mullaly Crime in the Port Phillip District p.290-297

Museum Victoria: Encounters

Bride Letters from Victorian Pioneers

Votes and Proceedings of the NSW Legislative Council

Letters from Victorian Pioneers (or “It wasn’t me Guv’nor, it was him”)


When Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe sailed home  for England on 6 May 1854, he carried with him a series of letters which he hoped to use when writing a history of the Port Phillip district in his retirement.  He had officially approached a number of the early pastoral pioneers and asked them a number of questions, and as you might expect, they answered his survey letter fairly promptly.  I’m not sure what the official letter said-  one of his respondents referred to a section that asked  “If preceded, accompanied or immediately followed, by whom and when, and the general state of the district around and in advance of me at that period.”  He obviously also specifically asked about encounters they had had with aborigines in their area, and their opinion of the future facing the aboriginal tribes.

He had big plans for these letters.  He intended his book to start with Captain Cook’s discovery of the Gippsland coast, then move to the early futile attempts at settlement.  It would then go on to record the effective colonization of the region by pastoralists, ending with the discovery of gold in 1851.  Part II would deal with the geology, botanty and zoology of the land; the aborigines and the human aspects of the spread of settlement.  He would then pass on to separation and the consequences of gold discovery, where he would rebut the criticisms that had been levelled against him for his administration of the gold fields.  He would then finish with ‘My Australian Home, a walk around my garden’.  (Gross, p. 131)

It was not to be.  He was increasingly afflicted with blindness, and realizing that he would never write this book, he returned the letters to Victoria in 1872 , where they were preserved in the public library.  Times had moved on: people were ‘moving forward’ then too, and not all that interested in the preceding generation. It was not until 1898 that the 58  letters were published by the Trustees of the Library under the name ‘Letters from Victorian Pioneers’.

Because they were responding to an official request with guiding questions, there is a sameness about the responses of his correspondents.  But there’s also quite a bit of similarity in their experiences as well, which is what I expected.  In fact, my impetus for reading this book was the suggestion in Robert Redfield’s book that people living in a small community often held a common biography.  Even though Redfield specifically states that his approach does not hold for frontier communities (which of course Port Phillip was), I was interested to see if the early pastoral settlers of Port Phillip could be said to have a common life story.

And yes, they could.  All his respondents were male, and many of them were young when they settled in Port Phillip- usually in their early to mid 20s.  Many of them came over from Van Diemens Land  from where they had initially emigrated (none admits to convict origins).  Many of them had brothers with them.  And they held in common sheep and cattle– hundreds and hundreds of them, trotting along, being slaughtered by marauding natives (and  what a dispiriting and expensive loss of life that must have been), moving from run to run.  Some time ago I read Roger McDonald’s book  The Ballad of Desmond Kale, and was frustrated by the sheep-sheep-sheep  emphasis of it, but sheep-fever is amply demonstrated here too.  It’s not as exotic and alluring as gold, but the sheep-rush  obviously drove the early settlers of Port Phillip.

They all mention the 1840s depression- although one canny Scotsman seems to have escaped it because he had savings still in Van Diemens Land.  There are names of landholders that spring up again and again- obviously big stockholders held land in several districts.  Many of them moved from station to station.

Some of them were quite observant about the changes wrought on the land after settlement.  Several mentioned that it was very dry when the area was first opened up, and that the rainfall had  improved in the last few years of the 1840s, drawing later settlers to land that had seemed uninviting when the first settlers passed it initially.  One or two mentioned changes in the grasslands, and some were quite nostalgic for the beauty of the unsettled areas.

Most fascinating of all was the range of responses to the question about aborigines.   Most of them knew of “other people” who had gone on shooting reprisals- as perhaps might be expected when the Lieutenant-Governor asked you such a question.  Several of them mentioned the Whyte brothers by name as being particularly responsible for aboriginal deaths, one respondent attributing 51 deaths to them compared with the official count of 30 aboriginal deaths.  A couple of respondents mentioned that they had shot aborigines in reprisal-  just one or two, mind you, and always because the aborigines started it first.   Another settler was named as responsible for several deaths, but he protested (too much?) his innocence. George Faithful of Wangaratta, however, reported quite openly his actions after suffering several attacks from surrounding natives:

At last, it so happened that I was the means of putting an end to this warfare.  Riding with two of my stockmen one day quietly along the banks of the river, we passed between the anabranch of the river itself by a narrow neck of land, and, after proceeding half a mile, we were all at once met by some hundreds of painted warriors with the most dreadful yells I had ever heard.  Had they sprung from the regions below we could have hardly been more taken by surprise.  Our horses bounded and neighed with fear- old brutes, which in other respects required an immense deal of persuasion in the way of spurs to make them go along.  Our first impulse was to retreat, but we found the narrow way blocked up by natives two and three deep, and we were at once saluted with a shower of spears.  My horse bounded and fell into an immense hole.  A spear just then passed over the pummel of my saddle.  This was the signal for a general onset.  The natives rushed on us like furies, with shouts and savage yells; it was no time for delay.  I ordered my men to take deliberate aim, and to fire only with certainty of destruction to the individual aimed at.  Unfortunately, the first shot from one of my men’s carbines did not take effect; in a moment we were surrounded on all sides by the savages boldly coming up to us.  It was my time now to endeavour to repel them.  I fired my double-barrel right and left, and two of the most forward fell; this stopped the impetuosity of their career.  I had time to reload, and the war thus continued from about ten o’clock in the morning until four in the afternoon.  We were slow to fire, and I trust and believe that many of the bravest of the savage warriors bit the dust.  (p. 220)

Several of the respondents noted that they had taken young aboriginal girls and boys to live with them, but that once they reached adulthood, their tribes came and took them away.   One settler commented that  he gave a baby back to its mother after he had taken it because the servant wasn’t prepared to look after it, and  seemed rather put out that she refused to give it to him a second time.  Several reported infanticide, especially where there was a white father and a black mother.  There were several allegations of cannibalism, although interestingly one settler reported that the aborigines thought that the whites were cannibals!

Where aboriginal deaths had occured, several claimed, it was because the blacks had become over-familiar.   White men didn’t take lubras, they claimed- the black men offered their wives to them freely.

Even amongst those who were most positive about the aborigines working for them on their stations, or their quickness and willingness to forgive, there was overall a deep sense that influenza, smallpox, VD or alcohol would decimate their numbers.  They all reported that there weren’t as many aborigines on their stations as there had been years earlier- strange that.


‘Letters from Victorian Pioneers: being a series of papers on the early occupation of the colony, the aborigines etc addressed by Victorian pioneers to His Excellency Charles Joseph La Trobe Esq. Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony of Victoria’. Edited with an introduction and notes by C. E. Sayers from the original edition edited for the Trustees of the Public Library by Thomas Francis Bride L.L.D during his period of office as Librarian of the Public Library of Victoria. (Phew!), 1969.

Alan Gross ‘Charles Joseph La Trobe, Superintendent of the Port Phillip District 1839-1851 Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria 1851-1854’. Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1956.

‘The Boat’ by Nam Le


2008,  313 p.

I guess when you’ve won a swag of awards and you’re working as fiction editor with the Harvard Review, then you’re no slouch.  And Nam Le is not.

This stories in this collection have been published before, in a range of different publications- Overland;  The Best Australian Stories; The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007;  Harvard Review etc etc.  He’s had support from many places- The Iowa Writers’ Workshop; James Michener and the Copernicus Society of America (!) etc. etc.   He’s pretty much a product of the writing-as-career environment with its courses, its fellowships and  its prizes, I guess.

But boy, can he write!  I am not particularly fond of the short story as a genre- by the time I’ve relaxed enough to trust (or distrust) my narrator, the story comes to an abrupt end and I’m left dissatisfied.   But he so effortlessly  draws you into accepting the world view of the narrator than within a page or two I was hooked, with nearly every story in this book.  Not all, mind you, but enough to know that I’ve been in the hands of a master.

Normally I would say that if I’m aware of technique, then I haven’t been completely engaged.  But with him, even though I was thoroughly engrossed in the story itself, I’d find myself thinking “Gee he did that well”.  His dialogue always rang true; his descriptions captured a moment in time exactly; he handled time shifts effortlessly.

Even though I know that these stories were written at different times and published in different places, the first story acts as a background to them as a whole.   “..I don’t mind your work, Nam ” a fellow writing-student tells him, ” Because you could just write about Vietnamese boat people all the time.  Like in your third story…You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing.  But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans- and New York painters with haemmorrhoids.”

And so, he’s off: I didn’t find any lesbian vampires, but the rest are all there.  The first story sets up the idea of “ethnic story” (and I thought of Amy Tan here) and it’s as if he has decided to consciously smash that straitjacket.  The first and final stories are the “Vietnamese boat people” stories he has consciously avoided, but in between he channels Tim Winton’s surf and adolescent boys in the story  ‘Halflead Bay’ and perhaps even Kazuo Ishiguro in ‘A Pale View of Hills’  in  the story ‘Hiroshima’.   But this is not mere ventriloquism or homage:  each of these stories is his alone.  It’s as if he’s breaking out and saying- “there is no ethnic story- just story” and then he explores, plays with and moulds his story within yet another time, setting and context.

Is he as good as everyone says he is? You betcha.