This review contains spoilers. Podcast episode here.
If film is an art form then Westerns, in my opinion, are it’s peak. However I’ve never felt they are captured quite so well on the page. There is something about the central conceit of land being greater than man, and man at the mercy of the environment which feels as though it can be captured best by seeing and feeling it to know it, rather than reading. The western novel however still has something to tell us even if most of our memories of the genre are from unreconstructed movies based on tired thinking which has not stood the test of either time or compassion.
It no longer feels modern to update a genre by superficially putting a woman in what we used to assume is a man’s role. Howarth does try to go further in Dust off the Bones, released in August. This Australian Western tries to dig through the past and perceive it through new eyes creating a more up-to-date western. It is the privilege of those who have not lived through a history to be able to see it through different eyes, even if we are often still cataracted by our own unconscious biases.
The inciting incident of Dust off the Bones is a massacre by the Native Police. While the characters are made up the Native Police really did exist, and they really were responsible for what could without exaggeration be called the attempted genocide of the aboriginal people’s of Australia. No single member of the Native Police was ever found guilty of these heinous crimes, despite widespread knowledge of them and some attempts at inquests.
Dust off the Bones follows Billy and Tommy McBride, two men who witnessed a massacre when they were teenagers, which was started by the Native Police in retaliation for the killing of their parents apparently by an aboriginal person. Alongside the brothers there are a host of other characters, the psychopathic Noone, who is a bete noire for literally 80% of people whose paths he’s crossed and the other 20%… well, he’ll probably kill them. He appears to have joined the Native Police merely as a means to channel his own blood lust while also hiding behind a uniform which means he can demand respect, and a certain amount of fealty for the white folks he protects.
Noone is the embodiment of all that was worst about Australia at that time, which opens the question about what Tommy and Billy embody? It’s certainly not the belief in and fight for justice, that personification belongs to Henry Wells, the naïve lawyer, sure he is going to change the world and be feted for it. Billy and Tommy in a sense embody the ordinary, the average, the path most taken. Realistic enough to know that the great man theory is a fallacy, but too full of fear and shame, and too bound by patriarchal conditioning to be able to move forward in a healthy way.
Instead the brothers through various and different means try to hide from and ignore their grief and trauma, but you can never run away from something which you are, you have to stand and face it, which is exactly what Tommy ends up doing, but only after his hand has been completely forced by circumstances out with his control. It is only when he has no other choice that he faces up to Noone, in the way that we all eventually have to turn and face our own deamons, but even then the idea of justice is not really in play.
Noone’s death at the hands of Tommy, is a very American sort of justice: found at the end of a gun. The kind where death is meant to be what was deserved. As someone who does not believe in an afterlife with punishment editions, and also would not strictly adhear to conventional ideas of reincarnation, death to me has always appeared to be a release from suffering. So the obsession with death as a punishment, the ultimate punishment, has always puzzled me, surely if punishment is really what you want then creating a worse life on earth is what is called for – and as we can see throughout history, we are really, really good at doing that.
Noone dies, but there is no justice. Just, another cover up, another avoidance of the truth of what really happened to wipe out a whole tribe of Aboriginal Australians. There is however more ripe and fertile ground to be unearthed around this history, and I hope it is a place where many authors will start to till the soil. There are questions around British complicity in the genocide, the state after all sent it’s criminals to Australia for the slightest of offenses, in an attempt to assuage it’s uncomfortable existence cheek by jowl with a working class it was feared would copy the French Revolution any day. There is the complicity of the state, church, charities and social workers in a policy that aimed to “breed out” the Aboriginal people’s and assimilate them with white society, starting with the kidnap of children. There are the aboriginal people’s of today who like many indigenous people who empire fatefully crashed into are still dealing with trauma and extreme inequality we lit the touch paper of.
There is so much here to unpack, to explore, it’s more than one book can do and and it is not going to be an easy or pleasant job. Howath however is calling us to it, because once you have finished reading this book you will understand it’s title is not just a useful marker for the story on your bookshelf, but instead, an instruction or a request. Howarth is asking Australia to start looking at itself, to start dusting off the bones.