Hu­man re­flec­tions on an in­hu­man catas­tro­phe

Black Satur­day at Steels Creek

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

By Peter Stan­ley Scribe, 240pp, $27.95

SEVENTY years on from the Black Fri­day catas­tro­phe of 1939, 173 Vic­to­ri­ans died as the re­sult of ram­pag­ing fire on the af­ter­noon of Fe­bru­ary 7, 2009. Ten of th­ese vic­tims of Black Satur­day per­ished in Steels Creek, a small and in­ti­mate com­mu­nity on the out­skirts of Melbourne.

It is with the mul­ti­fac­eted ef­fects on this close-knit com­mu­nity that this deeply mov­ing and in­sight­ful book pri­mar­ily deals.

As a mil­i­tary-so­cial his­to­rian, Peter Stan­ley has long been fas­ci­nated by the ways in which bush­fires re­sem­ble bat­tles. As he ex­plains, ‘‘ both are chaotic, trau­matic events; both are fought against a phys­i­cal en­emy; and both bring fear, suf­fer­ing, hero­ism, de­struc­tion, and death’’.

Al­though Stan­ley has never ex­pe­ri­enced a bat­tle or a bush­fire first­hand, af­ter lis­ten­ing to dozens of peo­ple from Steels Creek talk­ing in de­tail about what he calls ‘‘ their fire’’, he has pro­duced a com­pelling nar­ra­tive, a work of the first or­der. This is largely be­cause Stan­ley has re­searched and writ­ten this im­por­tant book ‘‘ as a sym­pa­thetic ob­server, one able to com­pre­hend, trans­late, and con­vey a ver­sion of the ex­pe­ri­ence — at least to make sense of it.’’

Black Satur­day at Steels Creek not only mag­nif­i­cently chron­i­cles the dread­ful events that oc­curred that Fe­bru­ary day and the var­ied ef­fects there­after, but — to this re­viewer at least — Stan­ley ex­plains th­ese highly charged, life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ences to the ben­e­fit of the cit­i­zens of Aus­tralia as a whole, be they ur­ban, sub­ur­ban, re­gional or ru­ral. This at least in part is be­cause the stark re­al­ity is that flood, drought and fire af­fect us all deeply. In­deed, for as long as hu­mans have lived here, bush­fires have been an in­te­gral part of the pre­car­i­ous life on this con­ti­nent.

Stan­ley con­ceived this book, writ­ten while he was head of the Cen­tre for His­tor­i­cal Re­search at the National Mu­seum of Aus­tralia, as a com­mu­nity-based his­tory. Hence he re­lies pri­mar­ily on the mem­o­ries, how­ever dif­fer­ent and di­verse, of 50 cit­i­zens from Steels Creek. Ear­lier last year, Stan­ley sen­si­bly sent his draft man­u­script out to all the peo­ple to whom he had spo­ken, to gather their com­ments, ad­di­tions and cor­rec­tions.

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