The European discovery of Tasmania, that vast island about 150 miles off the coast of southern Australia, came relatively late. Abel Tasman, captain of a Dutch crew, who discovered the island, named it Van Diemen's Land for his patron, Anthony van Diemen. The first European settlers, mostly farmers and exiled British convicts, did not arrive until the early 1800s. And, as we learn in "The Roving Party," a powerful debut novel by Tasmanian author Rohan Wilson, the settlers' encounters with the indigenous people were troubled.
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Troubled is perhaps putting it mildly: These encounters were filled with gunfire and spear thrusts. British racism fueled clashes, as Aborigines defended the lands they had inhabited for tens of thousands of years. Wilson dramatizes these troubles in his starkly told novel, set against the cool, shadowy Oceanian landscape. The book begins in the cold foredawn of a day that will forever change the life of Black Bill, a man born into the Panninher clan but raised as a white man. As the sun begins to rise over his hut, where he and his pregnant wife make their subsistence living by farming and hunting, he is visited by a horde of warriors led by the larger-than-life Plindermairhemener headman Manalargena.
The headman seeks to enlist Bill in a battle against a newly formed so-called roving party to hunt indigenous people. Led by John Batman, the quasi-official posse numbers less than a dozen men and boys: mostly convicts, mostly white. Bill refuses to join with Manalargena, who curses him. Instead, Bill joins the roving party, which sets out after the clansmen.
The ensuing chase forms the narrative of this exceedingly powerful debut. Wilson's compelling story carries us through forest and over plains, leaving a trail of dead men. Consider this encounter in mountainous terrain: "They fought them … all that long day. They found cover behind crowds of ferns and mossy rocks while Bill repacked [his weapon] and fired at the noiseless black shapes flitting between various concealments. Noon saw them stop at a water trickle and they took turns lapping at the stones as the other kept watch. Bill refilled his canteen. Then they moved on once more but that small halt gave the clansmen back some ground and they quickly drew within range of a good throw. A spear curved over Bill's hat and fell without a sound in front of him, the haft quivering in the earth. He frowned and broke the thing over his knee but more followed the first and soon the trees were full of their clatter."
The following night the roving party sneaks up to the clan's camp and witnesses another side of the Aboriginal culture: "a story being danced around the bonfires, the sound of one voice performing for a hundred souls. A single clansman passed before the flames and that warrior with his coiled ropes of hair was distinguished in silhouette, treading out the shapes of his narrative." This happens a second time when Black Bill gets close enough to the camp at night to witness something that will stay, for reasons that we learn before the novel ends, "with him all his days. A crowd of shining damp faces were gathered in the firelight and its shimmer picked out incisions raised on their chests and streaks of ochre they wore like costuming. Manalargena strode among the revelers and bellowed out his epic: a tale of animosity among clans and the requital he'd delivered for his people. … He was naked, his greased skin aflame. He walked and he clapped and the singing rose around him into the sky as the voices praised their ancient dead. Above it all the full moon rolled like a blinded eye."
Wilson's lapidary account of all this feels vital — and almost modern. There's something familiar about Black Bill's conflict: his admiring estrangement from the ancient culture into which he was born and his desire to live in the great world of whites.
While above it all the full moon rolls like a blinded eye.
Alan Cheuse is a regular contributor to NPR's "All Things Considered." His latest book, a collection of short fiction titled "An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring and Other Stories," is due out in April.
"The Roving Party"
By Rohan Wilson, Soho, 288 pages, $25