The Crocodile Hotel By Julie Janson. Cyclops Press. $24.99
I have always avoided commenting on Indigenous affairs, even though they sometimes intersect with the Asian narratives I usually write about. The problems are too familiar, painful and perennial, and I am squeamishly frustrated because I know too little about them and have no solutions. Many experts have written and spoken repeatedly and powerfully about what “needs to happen”: but still nothing changes, whether those who have the answers are Indigenous or not.
The year of Julie Janson’s story is 1976, but it could be today for all the difference four decades have made to the illiteracy and truancy of the children, the life-expectancy of their remote community, their employment prospects and living conditions. Jane, a young Sydney graduate who desperately needs a job, takes over a single-teacher school in the Northern Territory from a man who was evacuated because of snake-bite. Jane has an Aboriginal grandmother, and wants to contribute to and learn about the Lanniwah people, but most of the white locals – who enforce their own apartheid – do their best to stop her. So do the education officials in Darwin, who on their occasional inspection visits are more concerned about Jane being a single mother having successive love-affairs than about how she makes school fun for the kids. The teachers in remote schools, most of whom live alone in rented caravans in nominally dry communities, gather for conferences in Katherine to hear lectures on such subjects as “Methodology, Pedagogy, Objectives: Evaluation and Strategies for Educational Outcomes”. They then get drunk, dance, and have sex.
At the end of two years, Jane’s report to the Education Department summarises her experience: “I have waded to school in chest-deep, crocodile-infested water, while carrying my seven-year-old son on my back and balancing my books and lesson plans on my head, during the three-month flood. I have taught 52 children to read and I have planted a garden of Chinese cabbages, bandaged scabies-infected legs, cleaned nits from hair, dealt with a racist cattle station manager, kept my caravan nice and clean and written the school’s semester reports. My little son and I survived gastro, king browns and wild buffaloes and being broken down in a Toyota some hundred kilometres from help. I was nearly raped; a Lanniwah man punched me in the mouth. I … enquired about Aboriginal land rights on behalf of the head man and learnt…about Lanniwah culture, language and history. I was adopted into the clan and … very important elders hold me in respect. A baby died. A crocodile ate a man. I managed.” And that is without Jane telling the bureaucrat about the whip-wielding Boss who opens her mail, rips off the welfare cheques, and seduces the Lanniwah girls, or the missionaries who are not much better.
The education official cracks up laughing. When he says she doesn’t look Aboriginal, Jane gets him back: “And you don’t look racist.” But for most of the time, fearful of the Boss and the bureaucrats who could sack her, Jane puts up with more than she should. Towards the end, a stranger comes to her door saying he was in Vietnam and knows “how to kill gooks”. He tells her he and his mates will ”root you, then shoot you, and bury you where no one will find you” unless she stops speaking up about land rights. She repels him with a judo hold, and as he drives away, Jane decides “she hated the territory; she hated the power of all the old men who ran the place. The black and the white”. But she decides in the end to stay on, moving to another community, a clean new school and a new fibro house.
Janson developed this novel from her play of the same name, and has spent years thinking about its themes. Jane comes to feel she is “part of the supernatural world that Aboriginal people treated with a sense of common acceptance”. But that’s the extent of her solution to problems that are still as intractable as ever.
Dr Alison Broinowski is a research affiliate at ANU.
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