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deadly unna?Deadly Unna? by Phillip Gwynne
Penguin Books 2013 (1998)
Trade Paperback
273 pages
YA Fiction

Fifteen-year-old Gary Black is one of the numerous Black clan. His dad is an abusive alcoholic who styles himself a fisherman but doesn’t know how to fish. His mum is worn out raising seven kids and doing the laundry; she’s got no teeth left and her one pleasure is reading Mills & Boon novels and smoking. The second oldest, Blacky’s only talent seems to be coming up with nicknames, including his own. He’s the second ruckman in the Port’s under-18 football team and almost never touches the ball, which is alright by him. But in the lead-up to the much-anticipated yearly Premiership, it’s discovered that the first ruckman, an Aborigine called Carol, is really Carol’s older brother Colin and is thus disqualified from playing. Their coach, Mr Robinson – whom Blacky calls “Arks” because that’s how he says “asks” and it gives Blacky a thrill to hear it – has no choice but to make Blacky the lead ruckman.

The effect this has on Blacky is immediate. He feels like a sinking ship. The whole town wants the footy team to win and it all comes down to the ruckman – to Blacky. He can only watch with admiration the true stars of the team, the Aboriginal kids from the Nunga reserve at the Point. The Aborigine players are the best on the field, only they don’t really play by the rules – they don’t play to win so much as play for the sheer joy of it. Blacky watches one player in particular: Dumby Red. A handsome kid with perfect white teeth, Dumby is vain but immensely talented. Despite the fact that playing on the footy team is the only thing they have in common, the two become friends.

But Blacky is at a crossroads. He’s old enough to notice and recognise the inherent racism and bigotry he sees and hears all around him, but he’s not yet old enough or educated enough to really understand it. He still has a childlike innocence to his worldview, one that both shelters him from the worst of it and makes him a vulnerable target. When Dumby makes a deadly choice and the repercussions resonate throughout the Port, Blacky comes face-to-face with the blasé racism Australia is notorious for, and has to decide for himself whether he’ll accept the status quo, or follow his heart.

Phillip Gwynne’s 1998 novel, which was made into the 2002 movie Australian Rules (a nice play-on-words there), pops up on school reading lists across the country – and for good reason. The book is not only a classic coming-of-age story about a young boy growing up in a small town experiencing financial downturn and trying to make sense of the world and his place in it; it also gently explores Australia’s inherent racism towards the first inhabitants, the Aborigines. It doesn’t explicitly pass judgement, though it certainly takes a side; and it doesn’t exactly explain anything, only provokes emotion and thought in readers – which is ideal.

For a people as “relaxed” and “down-to-earth” and “fun-loving” and “carefree” as Australians are portrayed and known as across the globe, it is frightening to witness and experience the kind of blasé racism – notably that towards the Aborigines – that exists here. You will hear people make derogatory, stereotypical comments and statements that are highly offensive, but they are made with a kind of “you know what I mean” offhandedness, a matter-of-fact “everyone understands this” evenness that appals. It is the dismissive casual attitude with which the comments are made that truly offend and dismay because it makes it clear just how inherent and thoughtless such attitudes are. Non-Aboriginal Australians (can’t say “white Australians” anymore because the irony is that it’s a country of immigrants and it’s only in outlying rural areas that you see a majority race – white – in effect) have inherited an attitude of complete contempt towards the Aborigines, a ridiculous “I wash my hands of them” dismissiveness that implies that we tried in the first place.

The inhabitants of Gary Black’s small town on the coast of South Australia are very typical of Australians at large. At times it’s subtle; other times, blatant; but always casual. No one wastes much energy in doing anything about it. Everyone seems to think the same way, and anyone who disagrees – like possibly Blacky’s mum – keeps their opinions to themselves. The idea that someone would speak up and denounce a person for making a racist comment is laughable. And of course, the kinds of things said about the Aborigines are things that white Australians are just as guilty of: alcoholism, laziness, theft etc. When the white kids – Blacky and his friends – hear that a group of young Nungas are heading into town, they get all tense and antagonistic – a kind of inherited rivalry exists between them, something they’ve picked up on from their parents and other adults in the community, and imitate without really understanding just what they’re perpetuating.

“There’s some Nungas heading this way,” he said. “A big mob of ’em.”
Everybody looked up.
Usually the Nungas came into town, got their supplies and left again. But sometimes a mob would walk all the way from the Point. I’d heard them talking in the front bar about the good old days, about huge brawls down the jetty, Nungas against Goonyas. But I’d never been in one. I wouldn’t want to, either. Those Nungas were tough, much tougher than us.
“Where are they?”
“They’re coming down the main street.”
“How many?”
“Dunno. Fifteen, twenty, a lot.”
“What is it?” said Cathy, sitting up.
“Boongs,” said Pickles.
“Abos,” said one of the Maccas. “Coming up here. A tribe of ’em.”
“Are they allowed up here?” said Cathy.
“Yeah, of course they are,” I said.
“They shouldn’t be, said Pickles. “It’s our jetty, not theirs.”
“Bloody oath,” said Deano.
I could see them now, at the start of the jetty. They were mucking around with the ropes that went out to the dinghies.
“If they touch our dinghy,” said Pickles, “I’m gunna go get the old man.” [pp.190-191]

Of course, the Nungas just muck about, go swimming, have a laugh and leave. Perhaps part of the fun for them was putting the white kids on edge. What’s noticeable is the vast disconnect between them. Not only are the two groups on opposing sides, not only are the locals distrustful of the Nungas, but no one ever makes any attempt to actually learn if any of it’s true or not. No one wants to befriend an Aboriginal, to learn about them, understand them, see another perspective. That’s what makes Blacky unusual, and that’s what makes his position in the town somewhat precarious. As anyone who’s ever been caught up in schoolyard bullying knows, it’s pretty difficult to go against the status quo without making yourself a really vulnerable target. Easier – and often safer – to go with the flow, keep your head down and your mouth shut at best, or join in.

When Blacky takes the unprecedented step of walking all the way to the Point, his first impression is one of confusion.

The Point was not a big chance in the Tidy Towns competition, I can assure you of that. Not even in Section B. The streets weren’t sealed and there were hardly any trees. Most of the houses were fibro, but there were a few brick ones as well.
I kept thinking. But that’s not right, something’s wrong.
Then I realised what it was. The houses all had doors and windows. And according to the front bar the first thing Nungas do when they move into a new house is rip the doors off their hinges and smash all the windows.
So that was the image I had in my head. No doors. No windows. Well, not any more. [p.222]

It’s such a crappy equation, though: either the Aborigines do things they’re way and the way they’re comfortable with, which earns them everyone else’s disapprobation and scorn and contempt, or they assimilate and do things in ways that are familiar to us, which make us feel safe, and abandon their own culture in the process. Because here’s the thing: Australians won’t respect the Aborigines unless they make an effort to look and behave like us, but in actuality it doesn’t matter what they do, we will always look down on them. They can’t win, in this equation. And the second thing is: they don’t want to. They don’t want to assimilate, and become “Australian” according to our (white) definition. Why should they have to? The problem lies in the sad fact that colonial Australia not only degraded them, but made sure there would be no place for them, regardless. They’re stuck in a kind of racist Catch-22, and honestly, I can’t blame them for being royally pissed about it.

The title Deadly Unna? refers to an expression Dumby Red often uses. “Deadly” meaning “cool” or something similar, and “unna?” akin to “isn’t it?” or “right?” or, in Canadian, “eh?” (It doesn’t say so in the book, but you can get the gist from the context.) The story is a quiet, fairly understated kind of tale, carried by Blacky’s endearing and humorous narration. It has just the right amount of plot balanced by just the right amount of characterisation and character development to please me and keep me engaged. Truly I found it to be very well written and beautifully told. Blacky’s voice is convincing for his age, his demographic and his environment. I found the publisher’s blurb to be rather misleading, in that it implies much more drama than actually happens and much more interplay between Blacky and Dumby. It does make your expectations go off in rather the wrong direction, sadly. As long as you take the story as it’s told, you will get a lot out of it.

There’s a lot of subtlety and depth to this novel, tucked away within and without Blacky’s observations. Much of it is sad and poignant, like Blacky’s mum’s life and marriage to his rather horrible father; the town’s poverty; Mr Robinson’s dead-end career; the way the “blacks” are ignored and treated like second-class citizens (or barely citizens); the poor state of the town library; the sense that this town and its people are largely forgotten – noticeable in the state of its community buildings, like the footy oval, and the local member’s grandiose speech cataloguing his own achievements, none of which have any relevance to these people. Yet Blacky’s voice remains largely upbeat and optimistic, in an adolescent way, and his observations of other people and his world overall are both insightful and humorous, epitomising that other stereotypical quality Australians are known for: the ability to avoid self-indulgence. No one wants to be a “bloody whinger”, right?

With its understated approach to a sensitive, contentious issue nicely balanced with a humorous yet intense coming-of-age story, Deadly Unna? is unforgettable and thought-provoking. It’s a story that takes its young and generous-hearted hero on a tentative journey exploring the grey areas between black and white, boyhood and manhood, love and hate, to discover the price of not just standing up for your values, but the price of formulating said values in the first place.

Blacky’s story continues in the sequel, Nukkin Ya.

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Other Reviews:

“[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.” Zero at the Bone

“…Gwynne’s novel shines with humanity, hope — and humour. I finished this book feeling I had visited a very real place, and had come to know some very real people. I also felt uplifted by, and somehow even proud of Blacky’s final stand against the many forces which oppressed him and his Nunga mates. In a time when we have very real reason to fear for the future of relations between Indigenous and non-Aboriginal Australians, Blacky and Deadly, Unna? gave me reason to believe that all can be well.” Misrule

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2 comments to Review: Deadly Unna?

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