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Thea Astley: A Kindness Cup

In an unnamed North Queensland township, a group of white vigilantes decide to teach the aborigines a lesson. What particularly prompts them are two events. Firstly, a white baby was found by a group of aborigines by the roadside. They took it in and tried to feed it. It would not eat their food so they left it outside the house of a white family, the Jenners. The baby was recovered. (We later learn that she will go on to have three children of her own.) The vigilantes are convinced that the child was stolen by the aborigines, though there is no evidence for that whatsoever. The aborigines also stole some cattle and sheep, possibly to help feed the baby. Inevitably, the aborigines have been accused of many crimes, such as petty heft and general rowdiness. However, it is clear that they generally try to live on harmony with the whites. A group of white men, led by police chief Lieutenant Buckmaster, and four policeman and several vigilantes who are not police, set out to punish the group.

They come to land owned by Lunt. Lunt has not been very successful with his agricultural activities but he is sympathetic to the aborigines. Indeed, he has warned them to temporarily leave and is even looking after an elderly aborigine dying of pneumonia, while they go. When the vigilantes arrive, Buckmaster immediately shoots the dying man. Lunt refuses to tell them where the aborigines have gone so they tie him to the body of the dead aborigine. He will not be found till much later and, as a result gets gangrene in one leg, which has to be amputated below the knee. The vigilantes track down the aborigines and attack them. There is feeble resistance with a few spears and rocks thrown but they are no match for the guns and rifles. Six people, including, one woman, are killed and several wounded. No-one is every held accountable for the massacre.

We follow the story in three ways. The first is a straightforward, contemporaneous account from varying perspectives, which is gradually revealed. The second is an inquiry held after the event, which, while seemingly aggressive, leads to nothing. The third is the return to the town, twenty years after the event, by Tom Dorahy, who was then the local schoolteacher, and is now back for the town’s jubilee celebration. He had also been supportive of the aborigines and critical of Buckmaster and, indeed, had been part of a very small group that had tried unsuccessfully to stop the vigilantes. He has come back to the town to try and get some belated justice. However, since he left, the town has changed and grown and, while the key players are still alive and still there, everyone wants to bury the past and forget the episode.

The second half of the book is primarily about the jubilee celebration for which Tom Dorahy has come back. Dorahy tries to round up those that had concerns about the massacre. There is Lunt, but Lunt wants nothing to do with any protest and wants to let sleeping dogs lie. Snoggers Boyd, the local newspaper editor is sympathetic and is, indeed, coming up to retirement but he knows the people and is worried about the consequences of any action. The Jenners are not happy with the situation but reluctant to be involved in any protest. Gracie Tilburn, the girl with the lovely voice with whom both young Tim Jenner and young Freddie Buckmaster were in love, is now a twice divorced woman, still with a soft spot for young Tim Jenner (who is now middle-aged) and barely remember the incident and just wants to sing. But Tom Dorahy is not going to let it go. Whether it is revenge or justice or just because he has an itch to scratch, he wants Buckmaster and Co. to pay the price.

Astley tells a first class story about how violence, particularly violence against a despised group, can easily be brushed under the carpet and those that try to oppose it are likely to be crushed by the leaders of the violence. It happens to be the unfortunate aborigines in this case but clearly the comparison with the Jews and other oppressed groups in Nazi Germany or other oppressed minorities elsewhere in the world is obvious. Violence will win because it is stronger, Astley is saying, and it takes more than a few brave but essentially weak souls to stand up to the violence. Indeed, if they do, they, too, will become victims. Is Tom Dorahy a brave man or a foolish man? Is Lunt’s view – let sleeping dogs lie – the right one, even though, he may still be dragged back in, however unwittingly? And when and how is the right time to react? Most of us, whether the White Australians in this book or the average German in Nazi Germany or any other ordinary man and woman in a country where such oppression is taking place, are likely to turn a blind eye to the violence, simply because it makes life so much easier.

Publishing history

First published 1974 by Thomas Nelson