In Coal Creek, Alex Miller’s latest book, he takes the reader back to the ruggedly sparse Stone country of Central Queensland’s, Australia, where he had himself worked as a stockman. This is the setting for his earlier books Landscape of Farewell and Journey to the Stone Country and it’s an area he knows well and in the harshness of which he is comfortable.
Bobby Blue is the son of a stockman and has spent all his life in the small town of Mount Hay “the end of the line then, and still, as far as I know that country”. This is his environment and he seeks no other. He is the cipher through which the reader views the land, and the ensuing events. After the death of his father, a gentle, knowing, man of that land, he goes to work for the new local constable Daniel Collins. Collins had been a volunteer with the Australian forces in New Guinea and then joined the Queensland Police Service. And he arrives with his wife, Esme, and his two daughters. He brings with him a by-the-book approach to policing and a book-learned knowledge of the local people and land.
“The way I saw it was that Daniel and Esme never thought too much about how it was going to be for them coming in to police a town like Mount Hay from outside the way they did. They surely thought we was a bunch of country hicks and they knew better than we did how to do things and did not think they had nothing to learn. But they had never been out in country like the ranges before and was coastal people….Old George had grown up in the ranges and knew the way things was done. Daniel knew other things. He had books on the geology of the inland and the local people and history and he was proposing to do some reading of those books he brought with him and become an expert on us.”
Bobby boards at the police house and is a welcomed but designated outsider in the family circle. Esme, who initially enthusiastically devotes herself to a series of equally short-lasted “improving” projects in the town, asks her older daughter, Irie, to teach him to read. This is a relationship that both benefits and intrigues Bobby but which will inevitably lead to his troubles.
Bobby’s close friend, Ben Tobin, who is living with Deeds, an Aboriginal girl, has been in and out of scrapes since school and soon after Collins’s arrival he is set to prison after the Deed’s aunt Rosie falsely reports him. Ben knows Rosie’s complaint it is part of personal payback for trouble for the death of her son and is acquiescent to the period in jail. But both Ben and Bobby can see this will not be the end of the matter. Collins though cannot see the subtlety of the relationships – Deeds, Ben and Aunt Rosie and Bobby and Irie – and will not turn back from his course of action, with tragic results. In the end, it is Bobby and Ben who become the outsiders.
Coal Creek was one of my favorite books of 2013. Miller is a natural storyteller creating, word by word, a picture that is vivid and visceral. He writes of a life and a place that is so real it is trapped in time. And there is poetry in Bobby’s slow, careful language; something old-fashioned and pure that gives his narration an almost biblical quality. I think it will be even better on re-reading.
Coal Creek has been short-listed for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize 2014. Miller has won the Miles Franklin Literary Award twice and been short-listed for numerous awards. Coal Creek is published by Allen & Unwin.