Review: Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

This fine and clear-sighted novel begins in 1874 in England. Hester Crane, nee Finch, has taken up residence on her grandparents’ estate in Chichester. But her mind wanders elsewhere, overseas and back in time, triggered by the arrival of news and a trunk from her past.

Before we meet Hester we read two excerpts of the laws that set up the province of South Australia in 1834, where the “waste and unoccupied lands” were to be “disposed” of through allocation to settlers, and where the inhabitants “shall be free”. Hester’s tale loops back to 1855, when her family left Adelaide for the titular pastoral lease on the Coorong in the south east of the province to become part of this grand colonial experiment in freedom and settlement. There the family, seven children and mother Bridget led by their determined but hapless patriarch, attempt to wrest something from the land. Hester, seeing the poverty that the family has fallen into because of her father’s bad decisions, and the burden on her mother, vows she will leave and make an independent life for herself. But Salt Creek proves harder to escape than she wishes.

Superficially similar to The Secret River or other masculine stories of the Australian frontier, Treloar innovates with Salt Creek’s perspective. Hester is a wonderfully realised narrator, spirited and droll and determined, but she also has the blindspots of her time, particularly her conviction that there really is a moral and evolutionary difference between her family and the Aboriginal people whose land the lease is on (although those genocidal attitudes persist, 150-odd years later). Hers is a carefully observed study of the paternalistic attitudes of colonisation, a system where white men can rape Aboriginal women with impunity but the sky falls when a white girl becomes pregnant to a black man. Hester is a participant in this system, although due to confinement largely to the house we only sporadically experience its brutality, and she is also a victim of it, as are other members of her family.

Things go wrong. The land of course was not empty, but home and Country for the Ngarrindjeri people who the Finches soon meet. At first the two peoples are tentatively respectful, but conflict flares as Papa’s views on what is God-sanctioned land use and civilisation harden. He sees his purpose as “to make our living; to recover what we lost; to do justice to our family; to bring glory to God; to bring God and sow civilisation among the natives”. A Ngarrindjeri boy, Tull, whose mother was abducted by white men to Kangaroo Island, is permitted to live with the family as a sort of civilising experiment, but his status is always tenuous. It takes a long time for the Finches to realise that their presence on the land is the same.

Salt Creek is a tragedy of the delusion of entitlement. Treloar writes with terrific clarity of the apparatuses of colonialism, the white supremacy, hypocrisy and religious mania of it all. She describes the war over food, water and land: the damage the Finches’ cattle inflict on the Ngarrindjeri’s waterholes, Hester’s hapless attempts to gather reeds as she sees the Aboriginal women doing. Amitav Ghosh has conceived of colonialism as a biopolitical war, in which livestock and farming are enlisted as the infantry to destroy wholesale the livelihoods of Indigenous peoples, a war that’s still going. Treloar vividly evokes that conflict and the lives lived on either side of the frontier, and how that border between the so-called civilised and uncivilised world is policed and enforced to the benefit of colonisers.

Salt Creek is a gorgeous portrayal of a place in flux. The plenitude of waterbirds, fish and bush food speak to a time before the land was cleared for farming, before the Coorong became choked by the diminishing flows of water coming out of the Murray River. This is no nostalgic portrait of colonial Australia but a lament for where everything started to go wrong.

Gay rating: 3/5 for a major queer character and unrequited romance.


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