Good Reading : February 2008
36 goodreading ı FEBRUARY 2008 word of mouth general non-fiction Everything about books www.goodreadingmagazine.com ONLINE the history wars! In the November 2007 issue of gr, regular reviewer and contributor GRANT HANSEN reviewed Demons at Dusk: Massacre at Myall Creek by Peter Stewart. Peter Stewart wrote to comment on the review, and gr asked Grant Hansen to respond to the comments. Here is the result. Dear Alison, Sorry, but I can’t let Grant Hansen’s review of my book Demons at Dusk: Massacre at Myall Creek pass without some response. Given that Mr Hansen starts his review by stating he is ‘no fan of ’ what he dismisses as ‘fictionalised history’, it is obvi- ous he is prejudiced from the beginning. Mr Hansen writes, ‘I can’t get over the fact that a lot of what purports to be “a true story” is just, well, not true’, and later he states that the vivid character portraits are ‘entirely speculative’. Mr Hansen is obviously unaware that because the Myall Creek Massacre was so thoroughly investigated at the time, there is an enormous amount of detailed information on the historic record.The huge majority of Demons at Dusk is true down to the most minor detail. At times actual documents are quoted verbatim.The three court cases described are taken virtually word for word from the court transcripts.To ensure readers are not misled, however, I explain in my ‘Afterword’ the parts where certain scenes and dialogue are created simply to illustrate the known facts and provide the background to allow me, and therefore the reader, to get into the hearts and minds of the characters. Those characters are based on the information available on the historic record about how they behaved and what they said during the events described in the book. In various cases the words they speak are straight from the historic record. As I explain in the ‘Afterword’, ‘the power of this story lies in its truth, not in anything I can invent.’ Mr Hansen is critical of my book because of the genre in which it is written and suggests ‘This would have made a good novel.’ He writes some extremely complimentary things, describing my book as ‘well written’, ‘profoundly moving’, ‘hard to put down’ and ‘so powerful as to be almost physically sickening’.Yet, due to his own prejudices about genre, he ultimately condemns it.Yes, Demons does push the boundaries of the usual neat genres, but are your readers so conservative that they are incapable of accepting a powerful work simply because it doesn’t fit neatly into a prefabricated box? Hopefully, on reflection, Mr Hansen may agree that the best way to present this story to achieve the power which affected him so much is in its current genre – and readers can call that genre ‘faction’, a ‘non-fiction novel’, whatever they like.This story has been told many times before in non-fiction books which unfortunately aren’t able to fully develop the characters and their relationships; they have therefore had less impact and have been read largely by academics and history buffs and not the wider population. Yours sincerely Peter Stewart Grant Hansen replies: Dear Mr Stewart I appreciate your comments. As you observe, I did say some ‘extremely complimentary’ things about your book. I agree that the power of the story lies in its truth. Unfortunately some of the things you invent detract from that. For example, on page 27: ‘He [Anderson, the convict hut keeper] was sure of one thing, though – she [Ipeta] looked every bit as beautiful, sitting there now, wrapped in possum skins, as she had when he saw her standing wet and naked by the creek.’ Or on page 107: Ipeta, about to be dragged away to be murdered, looks into Anderson’s eyes. He sees there ‘something else ... was it pity ... In that instant, with his mind clouded by the inferno of emotions burning inside him, he wasn’t sure what he saw.’ In these passages (and there are dozens of others) you purport to know what was going on in the mind of Anderson. Unfortunately, there is not a skerrick of evidence to suggest the nature of Anderson’s relationship with the Aboriginal woman you call Ipeta, other than that it had been sexual.What we do know is that he did not save her from murder, even though one of the Aboriginal stockmen present was able to save a woman of his choice. Now this all raises a host of interesting questions, particularly as Anderson’s evidence was important in the trial that convicted the murderers. But the point is that there are any number of possible accounts of Anderson’s feelings for the murdered woman, all consistent with the literal truth of Anderson’s evidence.The version you have chosen – that there was a caring relationship of some kind between Anderson and ‘Ipeta’ – is, based on my extensive reading of primary sources on race relations in 19th-century New South Wales, one of the less likely, and could be quite misleading. If your version were presented as one of a number of possibilities that would be fine, but by adopting the conventions of ‘faction’ you deny readers the opportunity to assess the evidence for themselves. It is possible to write a popular history with a ‘novelistic’ feel without recreation. Neil Hanson’s The Dreadful Judgement, about the Great Fire of London, is one example. Hanson only uses direct speech if it is found in a contemporaneous record and seldom if ever purports to know what a 17th-century Londoner was thinking. The interesting task of the historian is to offer a view about what really happened while being candid about the limits of his or her enquiry.The past really is a strange place, and we do our understanding of it no service by imagining what someone like Anderson ‘must’ have felt because it is what we would have felt. Anderson did not prevent the massacre. He did give evidence later. His motivation remains opaque. On one view, a man like Anderson always went with the strength. He had no choice. As I said in my review, a great novel, waiting to be written.
December January 2008