Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Review of Only Thieves and Killers by Paul Howarth (2018, Harper)

1885 in the Queensland interior. The McBride family are trying to survive a drought that is killing their cattle. When the rains finally break, teenage brothers Tommy and Billy head to a swimming hole. They return to find their father and mother shot dead and their sister Mary unconscious, a shot to her stomach. Nearby they find the revolver given to a former Aboriginal stockman. The two brothers place Mary on Tommy’s saddle and head north to the home of John Sullivan, the wealthiest landowner in the region and their father’s former employer. Sullivan persuades the brothers to embellish their story in order to convince the Queensland Native Police to pursue the suspected culprit and his tribe. The posse who heads into the Outback is headed by Edmund Noone, a clever, ruthless man influenced by Darwin’s ideas of evolution. It’s a coming of age trek for Billy and Tommy, one slipping under the influence of Sullivan, the other starting to see the family tragedy and Australia’s colonialism for what it is under the tutelage of Noone. And it’s a nightmare for any Aborigines the group finds.   

Only Thieves and Killers is a coming of age tale set in the settled outback of Australia in 1885. Life is tough for the McBride family and it’s gotten worse with a drought. For Tommy (14), and his older brother Billy (16), it takes a further savage turn when their parents are murdered and their sister left for dead. Seeking help for their sister from a local, wealthy landowner quickly turns into seeking retribution against the suspected Aboriginal killers. The boys head off into outback as part of a posse. While one embraces the bigotry and violence of the landowner and native police, the other starts to regret what they have started and resist rough justice. Howarth creates an engaging story rooted in a credible history of Australian colonialism and the relations between settler and Aborigines without it swamping the story or becoming preachy. While the overall arc of the tale is well telegraphed, the story retains its insistent pull, there is strong character development and interplay between the characters, and a good sense of place and time. The denouement and the wrapping up is particularly nicely done. At times, it is not a pleasant read and is often unsettling, but then the outback and its violent expression of politics and capitalism in the nineteenth century was often not a pleasant place. Overall, a compelling tale of coming of age and its after-effects.

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