Tag Archives: Book Review

Massacre books a Myall off the mark

ONE of the earliest crimes I ever became aware of took place just a few kilometres from my home. It wasn’t recent and it wasn’t widely discussed between neighbouring farmers. My mother whispered what she knew of the story one afternoon, in between social tennis matches at the Myall Creek courts adjacent to the old tin hall where we gathered for community events.

The 1838 Myall Creek Massacre has haunted and inspired me ever since, in much the same way it has done for generations of grazier families in the uplands between Delungra and Bingara in the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales.

Haunted, because there is justifiable guilt attached to the murder of innocent Aboriginal people. Haunted, too, because white men were hanged for the killings, for the first time in Australia’s history. Inspired, because the massacre memorial has become one of the most enduring actions of reconciliation this country has experienced.

In 2016, two new books, pitched as seminal to an understanding of this hateful crime against innocent Aboriginal people, were published. I read with interest, not only because I am indirectly writing about the massacre, but also because I was part of the great ignorance about this pivotal moment in modern Australia.

The more we read about it, the more we come to understand the inherent racism and inhumanity that fuelled it, the closer we get to shuffling off the fundamental penal colony principles this country still practices when it comes to race relations.

30329712Terry Smyth’s Denny Day, the Life and Times of Australia’s Greatest Lawman (Penguin Random House) adds two critical elements to the analysis of the Myall Creek Massacre that I have not encountered before.

The first is the suggestion that part of the motivation for the killings was the habit of utilising Aboriginal trackers in the recapture of escaped convicts; that the massacre was, in part, justified by the convicts among the killers as payback for Aboriginal participation in Colonial justice. But Smyth doesn’t provide much direct evidence or make an argument for any of this, leaving him wide open to accusations of victim-blaming.

The second is Smyth’s courage in including the oral history about the exact nature of the crimes, as witnessed by an Aboriginal man who was not permitted under Colonial law to give evidence at either of the trials.

Most if not all of the writing on the Myall Creek Massacre stems from a desire to ‘own’ the story, or meet another storytelling agenda, and Smyth’s book adds to a growing list of titles that view the events from one strong angle.

However, by including the description of the crimes themselves – horrid, gutless acts of evil – Smyth has done a great service that far outweighs his focus on his eponymous Denny Day.

As interesting as Day’s story is, it is not the most critical element to the story of the Myall Creek Massacre.

The crimes are the core of that story, and must never play second fiddle to the stories of others. The book that has the courage to begin with the crimes themselves, and not shy away from the scene, will be the definitive Myall Creek Massacre title.

murder-at-myall-creek-9781925456264_hrMurder at Myall Creek by Mark Tedeschi (Simon and Schuster) is not that book. It’s an absorbing read but it should probably be re-branded as more of a biography of colonial NSW Attorney General John Plunkett and his impact on the legal system of New South Wales, and less of a broad title on the Myall Creek Massacre.

What it adds to the record are insights into why Plunkett moved for an immediate second trial of some of the massacre perpetrators, and how the risk paid dividends in terms of a generally just outcome.

Tedeschi makes the case for a better understanding of Plunkett’s character and exactly what he added to Australian civil rights. He also argues for why Plunkett has been largely forgotten by a nation whose history he impacted so significantly.

Elucidating the differences between Colonial and modern Australian legal processes is one of the key aspects to Tedeschi’s work, and this focus is essential to a full understanding of the prosecutions, and several unjust outcomes of the trial.

Day’s is a policeman’s story, Plunkett’s an attorney’s. Both their accounts will become crucial resources for whoever creates an unambiguous, mainstream book on this critical episode of modern Australian history, unfiltered by post-colonial perspectives.

A deeper look at the crimes that were the pivot of both men’s contributions will be key to the meaning and scope of that work. It has the potential to make white Australians see where we have for far too long feared to really look.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Bloodletting basics with Helen Macdonald

A Writer’s review of Helen Macdonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’.

“Macdonald courageously takes herself, and us, beyond our traditional blinkering on cruelty, hunting and killing.”

WHEN I closed this book, I felt free. Helen Macdonald can write. She can write the bejesus out of life, but this read left me like I imagine her goshawk Mabel felt: attached by a string while tamed to her mistresses’ arm, listening for her cues.

Much of this taming comes from the way Macdonald argues her case for weaving the bulk of her story into that of author T. H. White, also a falconer who wrote about similar stresses in his pursuit of the sport.

H-is-for-HawkAs soon as she mentioned White, I thought: Oh no, another writer who overlooked his homosexuality, but it’s in there, although Macdonald (like many other writers before her) completely avoids the fact that for his entire life, acting on homosexual desires was a criminal act in the places White called home, and writing about them would have led to the kind of notoriety that ended Oscar Wilde’s career.

White was a genuinely tortured literary closet case like W. Somerset Maugham, Henry James, Joe Ackerley, William Plomer, Christopher Isherwood and E. M. Forster. Let’s not forget they had their closets built for them by proactive buggery legislation that saw thousands blackmailed, attacked, jailed and subjected to electro and chemical aversion therapies.

Their natures cannot be left un-analysed at ‘cruel’. To do so is to join the terrible tradition of casting stereotypically evil, sibilant villains.

HAWKISH WRITER English author Terence Hanbury “Tim” White (1906-1964).

White was always tethered to society’s arm, on a very short string, fed tasty morsels that never satiated the lust for hunting in the woods for his heart’s desire.

Macdonald observes how this caused White pain, but still she made him into her unwitting antagonist, without exploring how legislation and culture contributed to his battle against his nature. This renders her book, and some of her arguments, instantly questionable.

Helen Macdonald did strange things in her grief. We all do, although I feel sure she didn’t write about the bulk of them in this book. We hear snippets about her falling for a man in the wake of her father’s death, failed jobs and difficult house moves, but these potentially interesting storylines are buried under her attention to White.

By the time she puts into words what one of her friends says – that White was just a “silly man” – it’s too late, her book is almost over.

As an observation of Macdonald’s grief after the death of her father, it makes for interesting storytelling. Macdonald grieves for the man who taught her to love wildness and wild places, and the loss of British innocence in the wake of its wars.

Escaping her pain, Macdonald’s childhood attraction to falconry sees her pursue a father figure – White – into the forest, where she loses herself almost entirely.

Her descriptions of place and emotion are incredible, they made me want to laugh with recognition of human frailty and cry for our endless recklessness and our ultimate vulnerability when it comes to our fragile grasp near the top of the food chain.

And her reticence around falconry, its context of killing and its anachronisms, are as strong and replete as her appeals for its place in human evolution.

“She leaves falconry hanging in the air as a paradox, for us and her.”

What H is for Hawk does best, I believe, is call into question our relationship with all creatures, domesticated and wild. It’s not possible to read without analysing the projections and limitations we place on companion and working animals, from dogs and cats through to kept birds. Macdonald courageously takes herself, and us, beyond our traditional blinkering on cruelty, hunting and killing.

The title it reminded me of most was Alice Walker’s The Chicken Chronicles, a memoir that revealed the journey Walker took, via her chooks, to better understanding the need to be loving in her relationship with her daughter.


Macdonald could never succeed in building similar bridges: her father, and T. H. White, are dead. She leaves falconry hanging in the air as a paradox, for us and her. Avoiding the sentimentality of her childhood literary favourites, like Watership Down, not even Mabel’s story is resolved, and the titular hawk’s ultimate fate is left to a footnote.

That is exactly what grief is like. It makes no sense, and follows no patterns. In this regard, Macdonald’s book deserves attention.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article also appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

Magda’s (not so) funny bits

A writer’s review of Magda Szubanksi’s ‘Reckoning’.

WHEN they say that all great comedy emerges from tragedy, they’re talking about books like Magda Szubanski’s Reckoning.

Audiences are often perplexed when commentators explore the comic-tragic paradox, a place where there are no easy absolutes. But it’s something Australian creators do particularly well. Think of the suicide of Muriel’s mother in Muriel’s Wedding, one of Australia’s greatest laugh-out-loud screen experiences, in which a near-silent housewife, whose name nobody can remember, kills herself at the turning point of the tragic B-story in the plot.

25875588It’s this layer of dysfunction that Szubanski courageously mines.

The narrative of Reckoning pivots around her success in show-business and her fascination for the scars etched into her family by European wars.

Szubanski’s exploration is driven by the very energy that fuels performers – seeking responses written on the face. The little girl who couldn’t interpret Holocaust images in a taboo book in her Father’s collection begins a lifetime journey of bearing witness to the facial reactions of those around her.

And no one gets off the hook, not living relatives or the long dead in photographic records of ancestors, or the family legends about personalities that Szubanski brings to vivid life through her powerful imagination. The little Jewish boy given sanctuary in her grandparent’s Warsaw home during Nazi occupation is perhaps the best example of this evocative, pain-filled cauterising of deep emotional wounds.

Recounting her rise to stardom, the author learns to read the faces of her show-business contemporaries and the characters she created. Even the primates she starred alongside in Babe: Pig in the City are scanned for responses to human frailty, for understanding and forgiveness.

“Like the best memoirists, she avoids painting herself as a saint surrounded by sinners.”

Actors require a response in order to re-act, something that is especially critical for screen actors where nothing can be hidden from the camera. It’s this record of Szubanksi’s journey from the inner reactions of a deeply closeted child, to the outer courage it took for a beloved celebrity to come out – regardless of the world’s response – which I found the most telling.

Yet by the time Magda knew what she wanted to read in her Father’s face, after finally construing what she’d always needed to ask him, he was long gone.

Reckoning is, then, as simple and as complex as the glance between performers: Father and daughter, channelling the echoes of war, failure, culture, desperation and survival.

As an LGBTI icon who came out publicly in mid-life, Szubanski has fast-tracked her way from second-wave feminist to courageous marriage equality campaigner, and Reckoning also charts her journey to understanding how championing marriage can sit comfortably within the same vessel as female self-determination.

Like the best memoirists, she avoids painting herself as a saint surrounded by sinners, because not all wars are external, and not all courage is written on the face.


Szubanski’s account of the experience of being same-sex attracted and closeted, and the unravelling of the veneer, are some of the most well-placed for Australian audiences to finally come to terms with what our culture does to LGBTI. They have already created a legacy for Szubanski that stands to become as courageous as that of her father.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article also appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.