a review by Nalini Haynes
The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper is narrative non-fiction focusing on Cameron Doomadgee’s death in police custody while also explaining some of the culture and history leading to the event and the exoneration of Chris Hurley, the police officer charged with manslaughter.
This harrowing and shameful period of recent Australian history is framed by generations of stolen children, ending with the use of the army in the Northern Territory to subjugate the Aboriginal people, announced shortly after Hurley’s exoneration. Hooper tells the story in narrative form describing scenes unfolding before her during her investigation interspersed with exposition and narrative from historical records and eye-witness accounts.
Hooper’s research was compiled into a compelling documentary that summarises much of the book well. The primary differences between the film documentary and the book are visuals and omissions. The visuals that were not effectively captured in the book included comparisons between two video interviews where Hurley, the accused, changed his story: between the two conflicting interviews, a witness gave evidence (also in a video interview) that contradicted Hurley’s first interview.
Murrandoo, an Aborigine in Burketown, was Hurley’s good friend. Much is made of the fact that Hurley had a working relationship with Aborigines and his relationship with Murrandoo in particular, both in the book and the film. What is not mentioned in the book but is revealed in the film is that Murrandoo is not full-blooded Aborigine, he has significant white ancestry. This may have impacted on Hurley’s attitude towards Murrandoo.
In the book, Hooper says that Aborigines from Burketown and other places spoke highly of Hurley and yet in the film the only people – other than Murrandoo – who spoke highly of Hurley looked white. It is possible Hurley overlooked Aborigine heritage in his dealings with some people based on their looks.
While Cameron lay on a police cell floor dying from a ruptured liver and portal vein, there was another Aborigine on on the floor with him, Patrick Nugent. If I understand correctly, at some time during the years of investigations after Doomadgee’s death in custody and before Hurley’s trial, Patrick Nugent was picked up by police and taken to an unknown destination. Later that same night Nugent was found dead in an apparent suicide. Hooper’s recital of these events is a throw-away sentence or two. In the film this is mentioned specifically, with no more detail but with a pause and dramatic music seemingly intended to emphasise the suspicious nature of these events.
The book delves deeper into the history and the people involved than a film of approximately seventy-five minutes ever could. Hooper’s story-telling is compelling and the way she gets to know many of the characters is enlightening. Unfortunately because Hooper is white and a woman, her access to the culture and individuals – especially the menfolk concerned – was limited. I enjoyed the manner in which Hooper juxtaposed developments after Doomadgee’s death with historical events and exposition used for explanation.
While I found the Tall Man to be compelling, I felt disturbed by a few elements. It seems that the author may have had a crush on Chris Hurley, she mentions what she describes as his good looks so very many times. I didn’t think he was anything but average in looks other than his massive size (two metres tall or six feet seven inches). Although I understand the value of balance in narrative journalism, it seemed like Hooper searched rather hard and used exposition excessively to build up a picture of Hurley’s behaviour as understandable and possibly even relatable.
In her conclusion, Hooper talks about the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report and how that was used to justify using Australia’s own army against our Indigenous people while simultaneously ignoring crucial recommendations of that same report. Mentioning this report and the justification for invasion may skew readers’ perceptions. Child sexual abuse is not pervasive in Aboriginal culture; this report appears as beat up as claims of weapons of mass destruction were when used to justify another invasion. Reading the Tall Man at this point in time, it seems to me that the events on Palm Island and resulting police solidarity may have combined to produce an oroborus effect: racial differences reinforced, colonial prejudices leading to a colonial overlord-style proposal, Hurley found not guilty less than 24 hours before Prime Minister John Howard announced the Northern Territory Intervention (use of army and sanctions against Aborigines, justified by the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report). There are too many coincidences in this chain of events for my liking. Hooper did not have the benefit of hindsight plus the Tall Man focused on different issues; including mention of the report and intervention seems to skew the reader’s perceptions of the racial issue. Perhaps Hooper will write a sequel, bringing this reference in her conclusion into balance.
The Tall Man is an engaging narrative attempting to focus on the facts and yet the author’s presence and her biases clearly influence the story. This obvious influence may be a good thing because no story is truly told impartially; it is better to be honestly biased than dishonest in non-fiction.
The Tall Man explains much of Australia’s Indigenous history and racial conflict that is so prevalent in the north. If you’re interested in learning more of Australian culture beyond city living and southern Australia, this book is highly recommended. For anyone who followed the story on the news and wants to dig deeper or who is interested in narrative non-fiction, I highly recommend watching the documentary or reading the book.