Noel Beddoe, The Yalda Crossing (UQP 2012)
As Noel Beddoe says in an Author’s Note, this book is fiction, but adheres closely to the history of white settlement near what is now the township of Narrandera, including the Second Wiradjuri War and the massacre on Murdering Island. That’s the same massacre that lies in the background of our short film Ngurrumbang and Andy Kissane’s poem ‘The Station Owner’s Daughter, Narrandera’ that inspired us. It’s my great good fortune that the book wasn’t published until the screenplay was complete and pre-production was well under way – the first I heard of it was a comment from Jim Kable on my blog entry inviting people to donate via pozible. If I’d known of the book any sooner, I would probably have been scared right off.
It’s a formidable achievement. Told from the point of view of Young James Beckett, as a teenager in the 1830s and as an old man in Sydney decades later, it is deeply embedded in its historical moments, and has a powerful sense of place. We care about the characters and come to appreciate their secrets and mysteries, not all of which are revealed, and some not until the last pages. The unfolding narrative gives us neither the ‘dun-dreary naturalism’ that Patrick White hated in Australian fiction, nor the black armband breastbeating that John w Howard claimed to discern and despise among Australian literati, nor again a ripping yarn of the frontier (though unless I’m very confused, Young James mentions reading some James Fenimore Cooper, whose novels must have been hot off the press). The tensions of the colonial society are there – English vs Irish, convicts vs free, authority vs opportunism, women as a tiny, vulnerable minority – but they are embodied in recognisable individuals, facing particular dilemmas. I started this blog entry with the massacre, and most of the publicity for the book has centred around it, but the social, economic and moral world of the settlers is thoroughly fleshed out in its own right well before the prospect of massacre appears on the horizon.
Unlike other fictional treatments of atrocities against Aboriginal people, The Yalda Crossing lays the ground so that we understand how good people can deliberately commit abominable acts, not without reluctance, revulsion and remorse, but with a terrible sense of necessity. The good people who set the tone of the community aren’t drawn into the vortex of violence created by people less grammatically correct than they: when push comes to shove, they are the ones who orchestrate the terrible acts. Launching the book at the Sydney Institute last July, Linda Burney said that as a Wiradjuri woman, descendant of the victims, she had to skip the chapter where the massacre happens and come back to it later. Noel Beddoe, descendant of the perpetrators, doesn’t blink, and invites us, his semblables, to face our heritage with similarly unflinching gaze.
Linda Burney quoted a moment just before the massacre when a white man refuses to take part because he would lose his soul, which is more important to him than gaining the land. (Incidentally, it’s a gauge of the strength of Noel Beddoe’s writing that only when I typed it like that did I recognise the Biblical reference there.) For me, one of the devastatingly true things in the book is how that man, in spite of his genuine refusal to take part, is nonetheless in the end completely implicated.
Every bit as good, I think as Thea Astley’s A Kindness Cup or Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. (Links are to my blog entries, though the one on Kate Grenville’s book is very brief.)