Human reflections on an inhuman catastrophe
Black Saturday at Steels Creek
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.