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Official Murder in the Australian Northland
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Chloe Hooper
Tall Man:  The Death of Doomadgee (NY:  Scribner, 2009.  258p.)

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Hooper has written a murder mystery wrapped in the cloak of political intrigue and racial persecution.  The unusual thing about this story, however, is that it is true.

Hooper has reviewed an actual case in Australia, probing the case of Cameron Doomadgee, arrested in Northern Australia for swearing at a white police officer.  While in custody, Doomadgee died under suspicious circumstances.

As in repeated stories in South Africa, the police reported that their prisoner had tripped on a step.  This did not seem to explain his ruptured liver.  Doomadgee's lawyer asked Hooper to write the whole story, drawing upon her impressive credentials and extensive experience as an international journalist.

Thus what we read is a day to day account of the story as it unfolds on various fronts.  Hooper follows the testimony and progress of the case witness by witness and day by day.  She does an excellent job of introducing us to the characters before the actual trial convenes, providing a basic summary of the case as understood at that point.

She presents the background and life scenario of each person, police or civilian.  She spins out more background as the story progresses, providing perspective on each new aspect and discovery.  We learn pieces of the mystery along with her, either from the police investigation, the public events, news stories of the run-up to the trial and other experiences of the family of the victim.

Especially helpful is the cultural backdrop that comes alive as Hooper engages with local communities explores cultural history and explains religious practices and traditions of the various tribes of people involved.  She is careful to point out the locale and tribal heritage or language setting of each practice or encounter.  Through the presentation of the personal history of the principals, we begin to see the different worldviews of the broader European mindset and the local aboriginal view of reality.

I got an almost overwhelming sense of sadness and frustration over the state of despair that so pervaded the urban aboriginal families and communities we meet as the story develops.  Drunkenness and abject poverty overwhelm the reality they experience.

Some fall back on the active heritage of Christian faith and worship, while retaining awareness of the traditional aboriginal unity with the land and mystical reality ignored or discounted by the European.  Others have despaired of Christian identity, because of its association with the broader colonial oppression.  Hooper details how one group of missionaries cared for orphans and schooled them in a military regime that virtually enslaved them.  But many of these people, like African slaves in America, found identity in the Christian faith that provided the power and energy to throw off the oppressive racial concepts of their teachers and colonizers.  Hooper gives great attention to detail, without bogging us down or distracting from the developing theme.  All this is background to how and why Doomadgee's death could and did occur.

There is an aura of hopelessness about other options.  Children grow up in violent, hopeless situations and grow up to perpetuate the situation in the next generation.  Some of this can be blamed on the racial oppression and exclusion of the aboriginal peoples from the general economic and social sectors.

This exclusionary racial discrimination and the oppressive attitudes and practices have changed in recent decades in much of Australia, apparently, as in some other countries.  Yet this isolated Palm Island on the northern Australian coast has been bypassed by even the creeping progress occurring in other areas.

This is the first case in which a white policeman was even brought to trial for the death of an aboriginal person.  Thus the trail itself is a notable event of Australian history.  The streams of subterfuge, collusion and corruption are developed and detailed skillfully.  We see top legal minds develop the prosecution against the offending police officer, Chris Hurley.

We see the day-to-day interplay as the defense attempts to refute the prosecution's picture and develop a defense of Hurley.  We learn how the first inquest is thrown out, and a new one is ordered by the Province.  It is a fascinating insight into the growing self-consciousness and moral consciousness of official contemporary Australia.

The title of the book, Tall Man, is taken from a set of aboriginal rock paintings featuring an evil Tall Man portrayed as an oppressive figure.  Hooper explores these and other aboriginal symbols and the use in sympathetic magic of the mystical worldview of the peoples.  The insights in to culture, worldview and some effort to reclaim a positive sense of identity and moral-social equilibrium are encouraging in the overall backdrop of despair that seems to overwhelm some of the participants of this tale.

This story spins out the trial and the underlying stories in an engaging manner like a murder mystery.  But Hooper did not make this story up.  She carries us through the process of discovery up to the emotional moment of the verdict.  Find out that for yourself!

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First reading notes written 24 May 2009
Reviewed on Amazon and OJTR 2 June 2009

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2009 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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