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The Will Of The Tribe - Arthur Upfield

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Author: Arthur Upfield / Genre: Crime / Thriller

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      08.12.2003 22:48
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      a thriller set in Australia

      I first learnt about the Australian Outback as a pupil when I came across 'Death of a Lake' by Arthur W. Upfield. That was in the early 1960s, Upfield was still alive then and popular in Australia where his books are set, in GB, France, Germany, Poland and the USA, all in all his books have been translated into some 30 languages. For many readers his books have been the approach to Australia and the life of the Aborigines.

      Arthur William Upfield was born in Gosport, Hampshire, in 1888. He left school at the age of sixteen, when he didn't succeed as an apprentice to a firm of estate agents, his father sent him to Australia so he would be less likely to bring disgrace to the family. Home doesn't have to be the place where someone is born, Upfield found his spiritual home in Australia, he was fascinated by the wildness and the freedom of the country. He travelled widely, mainly through the outback, working in odd jobs such as a cook, miner, cowhand, boundary rider for sheep stations, fencer, rabbit-trapper and opal digger. When the day's work was done, he had nothing to do in his shed, no TV there then, so he wrote down what he was experiencing, a self-taught writer without the benefit of education. He died in 1964.

      He didn't write diaries, though, he decided to turn what he knew of the country and its people into thrillers. He created Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, a half-caste, the son of an unknown white man and an aborigine mother, who uses the skills of both his cultures, Aboriginal instinct and Western intelligence (he has an M.A. degree from Brisbane University). What a silly name you may think; in one of the 29 novels featuring the Inspector it's explained how he came by it. Bony, as he insists on being called, was found as a two-week-old baby beside his dead mother and taken to a mission school. When he was discovered chewing a book he was named after its subject, i.e., Napoleon Bonaparte (silly nevertheless,
      what if he had chewed Winnie the Pooh?) With his wife, also a half-caste, he has three sons, his family doesn't play an important role, though, as he gets the tough cases, sometimes years old cold trails, and is sent all over Australia, mostly to far-away outback sheep stations, to solve them. When faced with racial prejudice he reacts with a smile, he knows he's good and solves his crimes through patience.

      Let's have a look at the novel 'The Will of the Tribe' from 1962. We're taken to the Wolf Creek Meteor Crater, the crater, the rim and the landscape around it are described accurately, not surprisingly when we learn from a footnote that Upfield was the leader of an expedition sent by the Australian Geographic Society to this area. A plane flying over the crater discovers the body of a (white) man right in the middle of the pit, nobody reported seeing a stranger, how he got into the crater, who he was, no one could tell. In steps Bony who takes up his quarters with the Brentner family in their homestead nearby. He has "three suppositions. One, that the murder was done by the whites. Two, that it was done by the blacks. And three, that it was committed by the whites and blacks in collusion."

      What does he do to solve the case? He walks around for hours, examines the dust, watches the sky, visits the camp of the semi-civilised Aborigines nearby, talks to people, plays with the Brentner children, listens to the ancient tribal legends the Aboriginal girl living with and working for the Brentners tells them. This doesn't seem active police work, but by doing so he gets to know what he needs to put the pieces of the puzzle together (the legends turn out to be pivotal). I can assure you the solution is surprising! (Make a guess, was it a white, black or black and white crime?)

      I've read five or six of the Bony thrillers over the years, I can't remember any other in which the Aborigines play such an
      important role. How come that Upfield is now more famous outside Australia than in the country and society where his novels are set? It has to do with the way he describes the Aborigines. Upfield was a man of his time, it was quite sensational then to introduce a half-caste as the main protagonist, but he couldn't look beyond the stereotype of the Noble Savage. The current racial theories of the time declared that negroid races had atavistic tendencies, that given the opportunity 'civilised' blacks and half-castes would return to type, i.e., the call of the wild in adulthood. "And what is also alarming is that Upfield would have been in the outback and the stolen children generations would have been happening. He would have witnessed that going on and yet it's not described." (a critic)

      And the language! From an editorial note at the beginning of one of the books, "these books reflect and depict the attitudes and ways of speech, particularly with regard to Aborigines and women, which were then commonplace. In reprinting these books the publisher does not endorse the attitudes or opinions they express" Upfield calls the Aborigines 'Abos', a term which is completely impossible today, there's a long list of the 'racist' (as seen today) no-no terms Upfield used on the internet. Logically translations can't transport the racist undertones, we have the case here that translations are by force more politically correct than the original.

      So an educated and politically correct person of today should not read the Bony thrillers? If you take all that is mentioned above into account there's still enough to make reading them a pleasure. Of course, life has changed for the Aborigines and the white Australians, a discussion among homesteaders if they should install a telephone sounds odd today, but there's a striking environmental aspect of the books, Upfield is superb when it comes to the des
      cription of landscape, reading his novels should be obligatory for all visitors of the Outback, it's possible to cross the continent following Bony's trails. Should I ever go to the Outback I'd take all 29 Bony thrillers with me!

      I'd also like to mention the novel 'Death of a Lake' from 1954. The plot is not so interesting as in 'Will of the Tribe', it is of the kind Agatha Christie liked to construct: a crime has been committed in a close community, nobody leaves, nobody comes into it, one of the members must be the culprit. We're taken to an outpost of a homestead near a lake which came into being some years before and is now dying in the drought. The people on the outpost don't leave although they could do so because the corpse of the man who disappeared hasn't been found and they expect it to come up when the water is gone, they all need to find it for different reasons. You think you know what heat is after the hot summer this year? Wait until you read this thriller in which the temperature climbs up to more than 50° C (more than 120° F) in the shade (!), birds get a heat-stroke and drop dead from the trees. The dying lake means that the animals which have come to live near it have more and more problems finding drinking water, one of the man decides to strike it rich and builds a fence near the watering place for the rabbits where he can trap, kill and skin them. The description of the millions of rabbits fighting for survival is unforgettable. When the lake is already very shallow, two men wade through it, no, they wade though wriggling fish. Then tens of thousands of pelicans leave darkening the light of the sun.

      Some years ago I saw a feature film on the (dis)appearing lakes in Australia, it was interesting in so far as it served as illustration to the information I already had, whatever was explained I knew from Upfield's descriptions.

      This is one of the novels in which Bony works
      undercover. Talk of the Horse Whisperer! Bony breaks horses without apparently doing a thing, he is just perfect as in all other situations we meet him in, of course he can skin rabbits in no time, in 'Will of the Tribe' he catches a ram and shears it, etc., etc. This for me is the one flaw I'm not willing to overlook, Upfield has created a saint, not a human being.

      All the novels are short, between 150 and 200 pages. Some are still available from amazon, libraries should have them, bazaars could. Look out for them, they're highly recommendable no matter if you plan to go to Oz or not! Btw, when I wanted to look something up in 'Will of the Tribe' I discovered that I own a third book, 'Bony and the Black Virgin', I had forgotten about it. I have to leave you now because I'm reading it again, Bony has to appear on the next pages, sorry, I really have to go now.

      ____________________________________


      "THIS OPINION IS PART OF THE BOOK CHALLENGE-AN INTRODUCTION TO....If you had to persuade someone how good an author can be, which book of theirs would you recommend as a first time read? Alternatively if you had to encourage a friend to read a particular genre (Sci-fi, Fantasy, Crime fiction etc.) or style (eg poetry) that they had always avoided which book would you recommend.

      If you decide to take part please include Book Challenge- AN INTRODUCTION TO...in your title and include this explanation paragraph either at the beginning or end on the text if you want more information contact the Book category guides Mauri or Calypte"

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      The aborigines, who knew how many eagles flew over their inland desert, must have known who put the dead white man into Lucifer's Couch ¿