Commentaries,written and visual, on the worlds of art and publishing
The Crocodile Hotel It’s NAIDOC week (National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee – not the easiest acronym to get your head around) and maybe appropriate that I happen to be reading Julie Janson’s novel The Crocodile Hotel (cyclops press)which is set somewhere in the Northern Territory in the 1970s, when Aboriginal spiritual life was strong, Land Rights was still more than a dream away and white racism was rampant. For someone like me who has spent almost half his life living out of Australia, this book had a great fascination. The story of Jane Reynolds, a young teacher at a school for Aboriginal children on Hubert and Edie’s Chinese owned cattle station, is a most entertaining read and a long way from Aeneas Gunn’s We of the Never Never, which survives as an historical document. I read it as a teenager. There’s not a chapter of The Crocodile Hotel when something extraordinary does not happen and it unspools like a melodramatic film of a frontier Australia. Reynolds, emotionally troubled and inexperienced, looks for love and finds it, more than once, but tries to maintain her independence. Her young charges at the school are a delight, she is a conscientious teacher but there is also politics, community and a constant of fights and incipient, often sexist violence. She is drawn to the life of the Lanniwah people who also live on the station. Hubert and Edie strongly discourage her interest. Reynolds – from suburban Sydney – passes for white but is of a Darug Aboriginal bloodline and it is with the help of the locals that she becomes proud of this black heritage. Developed by Janson from her own much earlier play, the novel benefits from its theatrical origin by having well-honed confrontational dialogue throughout. Generally it is unsparing in its detail of the living-rough habits of both the Aborigines and that of the amusingly depicted Hubert and Edie, a typically paternalistic and racist couple but good hearted beneath their hard-bitten exteriors. The Lanniwah are painted somewhat more favourably, but they too have their villains, like Old Pelican, the equally hard-bitten and racist tribal elder who rules by fear. Greedy old bastard too. The surrounding landscape a major character as vivid as the people who are an integral part of it – almost mystic when it comes to the Lanniwah with their corroborees and ceremonials. I was constantly made aware of the billabongs and the bush, the heat and harshness of both the wet and the dry seasons, the sounds of the birds and the danger of the reptiles, the creak of the pandanus palms and the smell of the ti-tree swamps, the presence of the stars and the night sky. It’s a straight talking book, detailed but simply written, with no denial of earthy sexual feelings and interactions across the racial divide. It’s a fictionalised narrative, but there’s an undoubted truth in the telling that goes to the sadness at the heart of the matter. In the end, Jane Reynolds triumphs, but … **** as they say.