The Roving Party

The Roving Party

5.0 1
by Rohan Wilson

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"[An] exceedingly powerful debut. Wilson's compelling story carries us through forest and over plains, leaving a trail of dead men."
Alan Cheuse, The Chicago Tribune

1829, Tasmania. A group of men—convicts, a farmer, two free black traders, and Black Bill, an aboriginal man brought up from childhood as a white man—are


"[An] exceedingly powerful debut. Wilson's compelling story carries us through forest and over plains, leaving a trail of dead men."
Alan Cheuse, The Chicago Tribune

1829, Tasmania. A group of men—convicts, a farmer, two free black traders, and Black Bill, an aboriginal man brought up from childhood as a white man—are led by Jon Batman, a notorious historical figure, on a “roving party.” Their purpose is massacre. With promises of freedom, land grants and money, each is willing to risk his life for the prize. Passing over many miles of tortured country, the roving party searches for Aborigines, taking few prisoners and killing freely, Batman never abandoning the visceral intensity of his hunt. And all the while, Black Bill pursues his personal quarry, the much-feared warrior, Manalargena. A surprisingly beautiful evocation of horror and brutality, The Roving Party is a meditation on the intricacies of human nature at its most raw.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this debut novel set in 1829 Tasmania, John Batman is leading a roving party into the wild to hunt down uncivilized Aborigines for the Governor. He and his manservant Gould have conscripted indigenous Dharugs and criminals to help them in their search, because they know the bushcraft required to track them. Included is the Vandemonian Black Bill, a former member of the Plindermairhemener clan who was raised as a white man and a fierce fighter. While Batman is content to hunt down the dark skins, there is one in particular they are aiming to kill, Manalargena, the warrior and chief, and maybe even witch, of the Plindermairhemener clan. Wilson uses this group of morally corrupt men to examine a dark time in the nation's history. For all his brooding ferocity, Bill remains the moral center of the party, protecting even the lowest of men in the party. Yet the novel requires great focus on the part of the reader to glean any moral lessons from it. From the use of bare punctuation, in the style of Cormac McCarthy, to the obscure and unexplained use of 19th century names and language it becomes a tedious chore to trudge through the wilderness with the roving party. (Feb.)
Kirkus Reviews
Wilson's debut is a grim and bloody tone poem that follows the historical figure John Batman and a motley assemblage of men through the Tasmanian bush as they hunt Aborigines in 1829. The group consists of four raggedy white convicts, two "Parramatta men"—natives from the Australian mainland who serve as trackers—and Black Bill, the arguable protagonist, a Tasmanian Aborigine. Black Bill, we are told, was raised by a white man, but he retains knowledge of clan language and ways and the ability to survive in the bush. The men of the roving party seek to trade "blacks" for government money or land grants, and their prized goal is Manalargena, a crafty leader and "witch," powerful within his clan. But most of the book is given to roving, roving for days and days. The prose is highly descriptive, but adjectives often seem chosen to maximize gloominess rather than provide a clear picture, and readers in the U.S. may have trouble envisioning landscapes covered in a litany of unfamiliar flora. One thing is clear: The roving party is consistently cold, wet, hungry and underequipped. Moral questions are largely suspended, though there is no sense of glory in the proceedings. Batman has an almost charming unapologetic quality, interested merely in the task at hand, neither its inventor nor opponent. Black Bill is more mercurial; it is difficult and intriguing to parse out his loyalties, and the question is mostly left up to the reader's imagination. When the roving party does come into contact with clanspeople, the action is messy and horrifying. Wilson gives special, gruesome attention to the massacre of dogs. For neither the faint of heart nor those who prefer strong plots, Wilson's work will nonetheless gratify fans of more bleak and rugged times.
From the Publisher
Praise for The Roving Party

Winner of the Australian/Vogel Literary Award
Winner of the Tasmanian Literary Awards' Margaret Scott Prize
Winner of the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing
Winner of the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Award

"One of the best first novels I've read all year . . . The urgency of the chase, carefully chiseled language, exotic characters and dangerous conflict with each other—it's all here."
—Alan Cheuse, NPR's All Things Considered

"[An] exceedingly powerful debut. Wilson's compelling story carries us through forest and over plains, leaving a trail of dead men."
—Chicago Tribune

"The grim implacability of nature and end-of-the-world remoteness that haunts Wilson’s novel and those of his countryman Richard Flanagan have inspired the label 'Tasmanian Gothic.'"
—The Seattle Times

"Wilson presents an emotionally harrowing, sometimes brutally violent exploration of cruelty and compassion in a desolate land. Wilson’s psychological insights are electric; the chilling ways in which each member of the roving party must grapple with his sense of humanity makes for particularly fascinating reading. Wilson’s novel will appeal to readers who appreciate intricate plotting, rich character studies, and poetic depictions of nature."
—Library Journal 

“A grim and bloody tone poem . . . Difficult and intriguing.”
—Kirkus Reviews

"Australian first-novelist Wilson writes beautifully, equally expert in describing the magical land as he is with Aboriginal dialect."

"[A] grim and astonishing novel."
Australian Book Review

"An extremely skilful book telling a horror story, and the young writer's maturity takes your breath away . . . not for the fainthearted . . . Wilson writes in spectacularly beautiful prose."
Courier Mail

"The Roving Party is distinguished by Wilson's tactful and restrained account of a brutal episode in the history of the conflict between European newcomers and the original inhabitants of Van Diemen's Land. His restraint renders the horrors he depicts far more vivid and their ethical implications much more telling than other melodramatic, at times tub-thumping, approaches . . . evocative and impressive."
Sydney Morning Herald

Product Details

Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date:
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6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

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Read an Excerpt

   They whistled for Black Bill through the foredawn and called his old clan name behind it, a name he had no good use for. He sat upright on the bed and looked about. The fire in the hearth was dead and the hut utterly without light. He doubled the blan- ket over his woman, covering the small mound of her belly. He pulled on his hat, his boots, all the while listening to those distant souls whistling and calling as if he was some game dog meant for the hunt. Then he swung the bark doorflap outwards and stood in its hollow watching the huge columned gums slowly gain distinction as the sun flared. In the thin hews of light the air was damp and misted and he was staring a good few moments before he noticed them. First the wormy dogs half hidden in the fog bands. Then ranged out in the steaming scrub reefs some- thing arrived as if from an ether dream.  Black Bill clenched  his teeth. It was a hunting party of Plindermairhemener men.
   They watched him across the mists, gripping clusters of spears  like  long slender  needles. Kangaroo mantles  hung loosely off their frames to hide the costume  pieces beneath, trousers old and torn and black with the blood of game they had taken and looted cotton shirts gone to rags. One of their number was got up in  an infantryman’s  crosswebbing and another was fitted out in a fine worsted coat as if dressed  for dinner. Their breath bled in the cold. Not a cast of relics come out of the grasslands where their forebears had walked but men remade in ways peculiar to this new world. As he watched those figures from the doorway the Vandemonian felt for the knife he kept rigged between his shoulder blades.
   Foremost among that singular horde was Manalargena who carried across his shoulder  a waddy shaped from blackwood and stained with the filth of war. He twisted the tool as he led his party from the scrub flanked by a dog pack, the bark shat- tering beneath his feet. Manalargena was vain, had always been, and his wife had ochred his hair into long ringlets as precise as woven rope. Indeed all the men wore their hair in this fash- ion sculpted by the womenfolk but only the headman walked across that ground like a fellow enamoured of the sound of his own tread. mina bungercarner. nina bungercarner. mina tunapri nina. nina tunapri mina. He gazed into Bill’s face as he spoke.
   narapa. Black Bill lowered his knife.
   The clansmen arranged themselves on the bare earth beside Bill’s humpy and they gestured with open palms for him to sit also. They were freshly painted for war and when Manalargena offered him a muttonfish shell filled with grease and ochre the Vandemonian accepted it, removed his hat and dabbed the paint over his head. Bill wore his hair cut tightly short like the white men of the district but the clansmen watched him with solemn regard and if their opinion of it was scornful they gave no sign. The headman again addressed Bill and this time he did so partly in English by way of showing him his place. For the Vandemonian was as good as white.
Tummer-ti, he said. You come we need you. tunapri mina kani?
   Black Bill studied his deeply creased face. You come fight, the headman said.
   Fight with us.
   Where? carnermema lettenener?
   Bill looked around at those grimly visaged men of war; each and every one met his eyes and he saw among their faces the bold expectations held for him.
   You strong man you fight, the headman said. Come with us. Black Bill was silent. He scratched at the old ritual scars on his chest. He called to his woman to leave her bed and when no reply came he called again, his words oddly deadened by the mist between the trees. Soon she showed in the doorway bundled in a blanket and Bill asked for the meat to be brought out.
   tawattya, she said to the clansmen, but they looked away from her and shook their heads. Her hair, long for a black woman, seemed to upset them.
   Her name what?
   Bill faced the headman. Katherine.
   Katarin, the headman said to her. You good woman. You bring food, Katarin. Bring tea. Good woman. We talk.
   She stared at him. Then she vanished into the hut. Manalargena smiled and waited until  she returned with a cold joint of kangaroo. The clansmen ate freely and passed the billycan of tea around every mouth. Over the smack of lips the headman praised Bill for the fine wife he had taken, her obedience, her silence, and on a whim he stood and strutted in mockery of his own proud wife and raised their laughter with his portrayal  of her arrogant bearing. The beard on his chin was matted, and the lank twists as red as a rooster’s wattle jig- gled while he walked about. Dark hands flapped at his sides and his nose turned high. The men of his party laughed but Bill watched and kept his tongue still.
   Once more the headman sat among the men of his clan and reached for the billycan. He drank, wiped his mouth and looked towards Bill. In the doorway Katherine held her rounded belly. The headman waved a crooked finger at her.
   She carry what?
   I dont know, said Bill.
   The headman studied her a moment and rubbed his plagued left arm. It was a mass of scars where he’d tried to bleed the demon out in his youth.
   Boy, he said. Strong boy. I know this.
   The cold sun in the trees as it loomed over the hills picked out Manalargena’s features, the folds of his face, the crosshatching rent in the flesh of his evil arm. Here was a man who might part the very weft of the world by his own words. A man sung up and down the island. The whites wanted him for hanging and several locals had stood their own private funds against the receipt of his head for campaigns conducted upon them by his clan. But Black Bill looked away from him.
   The headman  said, A boy. My demon tell me.
   There was another elder among the party, an old man of skin and sinew, who summoned their eyes to himself by beat- ing his waddy on his palm. He was called Taralta and his face was scarred and churlish. He alone in that clan knew the law and its application and he talked quietly into the hush his tap- ping had created. He spoke long against the whites and decried their  contempt for peace with  ancient  turns  of phrase  Bill could not comprehend, metaphors that had lost sense for all but a few wizened lawkeepers. He called the whites the caw- ing of the crow for morning. An inundation driving his kind into the heights of the mountains, the peaks of the trees. He adduced a great litany of evils befouling his clan and on each point he drew attention to the culpability of the whites and the flagrant disregard they displayed for any notion of justice. He said that if you forgave the devil for eating your food, he would soon eat your children. Black Bill listened to the case put forth and when Taralta was finished he raised his eyes to the law- man’s face.
   I am obliged to Batman, he said, and no other.
   Taralta frowned upon mention of that name. One or two of the seated clansmen, those who had something of the English language, saw through Bill’s  meaning  and they rendered it for the lawman. They stared at the Vandemonian and waited for Manalargena to speak. But the headman was rubbing his bedevilled arm as new spasms appeared upon his shoulder, rippling and flexing beneath the skin. He closed his eyes and seemed intent on hearing whatever counsel it might whisper in whatever sordid tongue it used.
   bungana Batman, the headman  said with his eyes yet closed and his mouth turning ugly. Why you follow him?
   The Vandemonian stood up. I got no more to say on the matter.
   When he moved, the men of the hunting  company also moved, pushing themselves up by their spears as the game dogs wheeled about, their eyes aflame in the dawn light. Manalargena climbed to his feet and slung his waddy across his shoulder.
   Come fight, he said. No.
   I say this. Knife is sharpen on stone. You come now. We find your stone.
   Grey light curled above the gums.  If there was more of a world beyond that small clearing and the few souls stand- ing there, Bill knew nothing of it in those moments when the headman held him fixed in a glare. But he would not be moved.
   My father, said Manalargena,  he tell me many thing. He like to speak. And I like to listen. Now you hear me, Tummer-ti. You listen. As he spoke the headman moved his hand as if he was conjuring.
   There was two brother you see. They live near a river them brother. They catch plenty crayfish in river. It was big river very big. They got long legs them brother they walk out that river and catch them crayfish. Under the rock. Then one brother he make the fire. Another brother he sing the song. Then they eat them crayfish you see. They sing and they eat. Always this way. They pass many happy day.
   I remember  it, said Bill. I heard  it before. You hear me, Tummer-ti. You listen.
Bill looked  around at the others. A dour mob. I aint con- cerned with yer stories, he said.
   But the headman went on. Hunter come to the river. He is hungry hunter you see. He want crayfish. He see them brother eating crayfish, singing song. He want crayfish too. He bring up spear. Here the headman  made as if to raise something. He bring up that spear and he call out: I hungry,  you give me that crayfish. He hold that spear and he call out. But them brother they scared you see. They scared and they run. They run and they change. They change to wallaby and they jump. Now they jump and jump and the hunter he follow them.
   So hunter he change too. He run and he change to that wal- laby and he jump. Now three wallaby jump near river. They eat grass. They forget the crayfish. They eat grass and they drink water and they forget crayfish. Three wallaby near the river. Very big river.
   Black Bill looked at him. They was snakes was how I heard it told.
   Aye. Snakes. powrana?
   powrana.  Bill made a slithering motion with his hand.
   No no no. Wallaby. You listen, Tummer-ti. You Panninher man not Plindermairhemener. You listen my story. Three wal- laby near the river you see. Not two and one but three. Them brother lost, you understand. They see plenty wallaby. But no see brother. Three wallaby near river eat the grass and drink the water but they forget. Who is brother. Who is hunter. They forget this thing. Now three wallaby. No one sing. Them all lost. All same you see.
   Bill looked  the headman long in the eyes. That makes no sense, he said.
   You  no hear. Hear nothing.  Manalargena tapped at his temple. A wind was freshly risen in the gums and it dispersed the scrags of mist and shifted the headman’s shirt.
I dont want no part of it, said Bill. You do what you think is right. Do what you have to. But I cant help.
   The headman snorted. He glanced around at his warriors. They leaned on their  long spears, puffs of vapour blowing from their nostrils as they stood in the cold, indifferent to the Vandemonian’s refusal. But the headman rubbed his arm slowly as he looked Black Bill over one last time, then without a word he turned and led his clan off into the scrub, the slap of their feet sounding on the earth as they went. Bill waited as those figures melded once more into  the bush and waited even after they’d gone, staring into the void, left with only his thoughts.
   Inside the humpy he filled a tin bowl from the river bucket and unwrapped the soap cake from its leather. He lathered his hair and rinsed away the clay and possum grease smeared over it, the water running bloodcoloured  off his forehead. He washed and rinsed once more. The collar of his shirt hung sodden and redstained about his neck as he ladled the water across his scalp and Katherine, huddled in her blankets, loaded the fire with wood and watched him.
   When he was done, when he’d emptied the water outside, he went to the corner of the humpy and retrieved the old brown bessie kept beside their bed. It was a decent piece for which he’d bartered his pair of seasoned game dogs. He checked the mechanism, loaded it and propped the gun beside the door. Then he lowered himself into the chair and sat staring at the weapon. The roving party would be striking out after the Plindermairhemener in a week. Batman had agreed to cut him in on the bounty. Him and the Dharugs. Without their bushcraft the party had no hope of success.
   Katherine eyed the gun.
   You see them again you’ll be needin it, he said.
   But Bill knew the gun was only for show. If Manalargena means harm then harm shall follow.

Meet the Author

Rohan Wilson lived a long, mostly lonely, life until a lucky turn of events led him to take up a teaching position in Japan, where he met his wife. They have a son who loves books, as all children should. They live in Launceston, Tasmania, but don't know why. Rohan holds degrees and diplomas from the universities of Tasmania, Southern Queensland and Melbourne. This is his first book.

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The Roving Party 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
TheReadingWriter More than 1 year ago
This haunting debut by Rohan Wilson is a grim but beautifully written and evocative retelling of the clearing of Van Diemen’s Land for white settlers. Darkly imagined and unblinkingly told, Wilson features a black man raised white as one of two central characters. He is called Black Bill, or The Vandemonian. Vandemonian is a term white settlers of Van Dieman’s Land called themselves. Bill travels with and aids the ‘roving party’ as they seek to kill or capture aborigines in the area that came to be called Tasmania. The other is major character is Batman, John Batman, a historical figure born in Sydney of British parents and who settled in Tasmania’s northeast. Batman led roving parties over a period of years during the ‘Black Wars’ that is the subject of this novel. The roving party has two more black scouts, both from Parramatta near Sydney, who join for payment. Much of the rest of the group are poor damned men, recently released white convicts who seek government pardons for their efforts. Wilson balances on a knife’s edge in re-creating the real life that fills this story, rounding out his two main characters by instilling in them a steely-eyed savagery, an ability to coldly reason and plot their advantages, and a blessed and unexpected charity. Rich language and complex characterizations makes this tragedy the marvel it is, and Wilson is positively Shakespearean in adding comic relief with the occasional buffoonery of some of the rovers. The raid depicted in this novel is a recorded event that took place in September 1829. Batman led an attack on a large group of Plindermairhemener clan aborigines who were headed by the witch Manalargena. "Foremost among that singular horde was Manalargena who carried across his shoulder a waddy shaped from blackwood and stained with the filth of war…his wife had ochred his hair into long ringlets as precise as woven rope…the beard on his chin was matted, and the lank twists as red as a rooster’s wattle jiggled as he walked about…" Mannalargena On this raid, Batman takes hostage a young mother and her child. He sends the mother off to the penal colony down south while he keeping the child in his own household. But it is Black Bill we watch with such terrible intensity throughout the novel, praying that his motivation becomes, if not acceptable, at least understandable. He knows Manalargena, and hosted his band at his home. There is very little modern-day sensibility here and we feel transported to a different time. Whatever dislocation non-Australians might feel with the language, the weapons, the plants and animals unique to the continent ‘down under’, one knows in one’s heart and gut the bald truth of the white man’s sense of ‘manifest destiny’: What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine. That each of our continents experienced it makes this terrible tale no less potent. Originally published by Allen & Unwin in Australia in 2011, this book won the Vogel Literary Award there in that year. It has also won the 2013 Tasmania Literary Award Margaret Scott Prize, and the 2012 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award. It was shortlisted for the numerous other awards. It deserves all this attention for as a debut this is an extraordinary achievement. For more history of the time and place recorded in this fiction, see this Wikipedia entry for Ben Lomond Mountain in northeast Tasmania. It turns out that Black Bill was real, too. His name was William Ponsonby. Rohan Wilson shares with us the experience of writing his first novel and winning the Vogel Prize.