The tragedy of people in the wrong place
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.
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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-