The tragedy of peo­ple in the wrong place

Coal Creek

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce

ALEX Miller’s 11th novel, Coal Creek, takes us back to Queens­land, to ‘‘ the stone coun­try’’, ‘‘ the play­ground of the Old Peo­ple’’ and the Gna­pun fam­ily that has fea­tured in sev­eral of his ear­lier works.

The par­tic­u­lar set­ting this time is the de­clin­ing out­back town of Mount Hay, in­land from Townsville, ‘‘ the end of the line then and still is as far as I know that coun­try’’.

Most of the novel takes place soon af­ter the end of World War II. The speak­ing voice be­longs to Bobby Blue (Ble­witt), who has grown up ‘‘ out in the camp mus­ter­ing up the scrubs with Dad’’, and who lives and in­ti­mately knows ‘‘ the for­saken high­lands among the poi­son bendee and the bit­ter barks’’.

His nar­ra­tive is in­formed by re­gret rather than re­pen­tance for a crime for which he was wrongly con­victed. He has sur­vived to tell this tale in his ap­par­ently art­less ver­nac­u­lar, as did an­other fic­tional char­ac­ter who spoke from prison, Dick Marston, the flawed hero of Rolf Bol­drewood’s fa­mous bushrang­ing novel, By Alex Miller Allen & Un­win, 304pp, $29.99 Rob­bery Un­der in 1882-83.

Miller’s task, and his tri­umph, is the ex­act­ing one of find­ing and then keep­ing hold of the voice of a char­ac­ter who is un­e­d­u­cated, but wise in the ways of his own world. It is as though Miller has boldly cho­sen an anti-author to tell his story. Yet while Bobby Blue’s fa­ther ‘‘ got by okay with­out need­ing to read. There was noth­ing ever needed read­ing in the scrubs’’, the son finds him­self, at 20, be­ing taught his let­ters by 12-year-old Irie Collins, older daugh­ter of the po­lice­man Daniel Collins, who is newly ar­rived, with his fam­ily, at Mount Hay.

Collins had

Arms,

served

which

was

se­ri­alised

in New Guinea

as a cor­po­ral in the AIF, but has moved now to a ter­ri­tory just as for­eign to him. Bobby Blue sur­mises that ‘‘ my dad would have taken one look at Daniel Collins and he would have walked away and not looked back’’. How­ever, Bobby Blue, who has, some­what to his own sur­prise, taken a job as Collins’s as­sis­tant, does not al­low him­self even such tacit scorn, much as he sees how un­fit­ted his boss is to the bush.

For in­stance, out rid­ing with him, Bobby Blue judges that: ‘‘ I soon seen he never knew he was be­ing watched. I knew from that he was not the man for that coun­try.’’

Nor does Collins’s polic­ing suit the cus­toms of Mount Hay. His hasty ar­rest of Ben Tobin, Bobby Blue’s best friend since their in­fancy, sets in train the ter­ri­ble events with which the novel cli­maxes.

Apart from his fa­ther, Ben is the best bush­man Bobby Blue has known. He has helped him build, out of ‘‘ sheets of rip­ple iron’’, Ben’s house at Coal Creek. Yet if ‘‘ in the scrub on a horse he was a quiet and re­li­able man’’, Ben also has ‘‘ a well of cru­elty his old man put in him with the beat­ings he gave him as a child’’.

Ben is ar­rested by Collins on the charge of as­sault­ing his Abo­rig­i­nal part­ner, Deeds. His ac­cuser is Deeds’s aunt, Rosie Gna­pun, who is seek­ing pun­ish­ment for a beat­ing Ben gave her son. Bobby Blue is per­plexed. He knows her mo­tives are venge­ful, her will im­pla­ca­ble, at the same time as he has been taught by his fa­ther an un­crit­i­cal re­gard for ‘‘ them Old Peo­ple’’ who ‘‘ are the dust of the worn-down moun­tains them­selves and the knowl­edge is in them like the mir­ror of their souls’’. This is one of the few mo­ments when Bobby Blue’s voice rings un­con­vinc­ingly.

More of­ten the tone of his voice is ele­giac, his at­ti­tude watch­ful, es­pe­cially as he ob­serves the nat­u­ral world, re­mark­ing ‘‘ red ash pines, which some call the soap tree’’, or ‘‘ a yel­low robin in a patch of mesquite, the na­tive bird sit­ting in the branches of the stranger bush’’. Bobby Blue’s soul com­pan­ion in such res-

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