A pretty non-spoilery review!
Deadly, Unna? was Phillip Gwynne’s first novel, published in 1998. It’s the story of a small South Australian town, a footy team, a fourteen-year-old white boy called Gary Black (Blacky) and black/white race relations. The white kids live in town, the Port, and the Aboriginal kids live at the Point, but they come together every winter for football season. The year they finally win the premiership, Gary notices there’s something very wrong when the prize that ought to go to the team’s star player, Dumby Red, goes to a white boy instead. The novel’s about his gradual realisations about the racism rampant in his community and the small stands he makes against it.
I don’t know a lot about footy or what it’s like to live in a small town or what it’s like to grow up in a large family like Gary’s, all of which form very important parts of Deadly, Unna?, so I can’t really speak to those aspects of the book, but I want to talk about race a bit.
Naming Gary’s family Black was a pretty good move, and Gwynne manipulates it beautifully to show Gary’s increasing identification with his Aboriginal neighbours and awareness of racial tensions. But, of course, Blacky is white. And a lot of really successful novels about race are framed from the perspective of a white character, which speaks to something I’ll get to a couple of paragraphs down. I’d have loved to have seen more of the perspectives of Aboriginal characters shining through!
I was having a chat with Spilt Milk about the book and she told me that she felt that the book had limited potential in opening up knowledge of Indigenous issues to the high school students she taught it to. ‘I mean, they all seemed to relate to Gary but Gary is the nice-white-boy-saviour. It’s not challenging. It’s quite a comfortable story for them to read really, because Gary’s discomfort with the Indigenous community and their customs is normalised. Dumby and Clarence are positive characters but I think the overall effect is pretty othering.’ I feel pretty much the same way. I imagine a lot of young white readers would relate to Gary, because he’s the character they can identify with for an “in” to the story and they can therefore identify as good, non-racist guys, too. They can feel good about themselves while they frown at the racism present in the world of the novel.
What I’m wondering is about the readers who don’t identify with Gary. I don’t want to spoil the story, but those who identify with Dumby in particular are going to have a vastly different experience of the text. And what about young girls and women who identify with Clarence? She’s a pretty cool character, but she’s not there much, she’s mostly there being kind to Gary. And Gary gets to save the day by bridging the divine between the Point and Port communities in various ways, while Clarence and co get to grieve and disappear.
What I’m getting at is that it’s a great novel for providing mechanisms for white kids to have an “in” to learning more about racism against Aboriginal Australians; Gwynne has absolutely done a really skilled job there. But it’s a comfortable “in,” and I’m not sure how much self-examination it’s going to produce for those kids identifying with and as the good guy.
Spilt Milk thinks that masculinity and the rigidity of gender roles in the book were explored a lot more effectively than race. I hadn’t initially thought much about how gender functions in the book, but thinking about it after, there’s some really positive messaging with Gary’s fondness for the romance novels his mother reads and in his rejection of the kind of hurtful masculinity his father embodies, without giving too much of the story away.
I’d definitely have a go of this one, or recommend it to younger folk in your life. Warning to the non-Aussies, it’s full of Aussie slang – which is so endearing! – and you may find that a bit difficult to penetrate.