Read & Rights Review: The Tall Man

By Jess O’Callaghan

On the 17th of April, Read & Rights will meet at LOOP to discuss the human rights issues in Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man. Here’s our review. Please send yours to jess@rightnow.org.au. For more info about the event, please click here.

Hurley had battle in his name, Cameron had doom in his. The bitter joke of reconciliation in Australia was that the lives of these two men were supposed to be weighed equally. P. 242

The Tall Man begins where the life of Cameron Doomadgee ends, in the Aboriginal community of Palm Island off Queensland’s north coast. Chloe Hooper, herself very much a part of the story, lands at the islands airstrip with a team of lawyers. Led by Andrew Boe, they are acting pro-bono on behalf of Cameron’s family in the inquest investigating Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, the officer accused of manslaughter due to Camero Doomadgee’s death in custody.

First published in 2008, the edition I finally read after maybe ten recommendations is covered in a plethora of praise. The gold and silver circles spilling onto both covers boasted accolades authors dream of receiving. With expectations raised this high, surely I could only be disappointed.

I’ve never been less disappointed in a book.

The story follows the inquest and subsequent trial of Hurley, and all of the tension that came along with it. This was the first time an Aboriginal death in custody had ever reached a trial. The Palm Island Riots and Police Union rallies that surround the case also feature in the book, and Hooper is great at showing the disconnect of understanding between them. This isn’t a book with a right side and a wrong side. While Hurley is cast as the “Tall Man” of Aboriginal lore, this myth is not left unexplored. In fact most of the book is spent grappling with the apparent impossibility that a man devoted to his work in Indigenous communities could attack an Aboriginal man with such force that his liver is cleaved in two.

The Tall Man weaves together the lives of Cameron Doomadgee and Chris Hurley, both thirty-six years old. It takes the reader through Doomadgee’s relationships with his de-facto Tracy Twaddle, his son Eric, and his sisters. It explores Chris Hurley’s postings before Palm Island, his friendship with activist Murrandoo Yanner, his teaching Indigenous kids to drive his police car, taking them on their first trip to the city. It follows rumours to his posting in Burketown, and back to the relationship he had with the people of Palm Island.

It doesn’t just tell the story of race relations in an isolated moment in Australian history, but how the country reached that moment. Cameron Doomadgee wasn’t just a thirty-six year old Indigenous man, but part of the narrative of race relations that stretched back before he was born.

Cameron was two generations from Wild Time and he was one generation- or less, seeing as his older siblings had been raised in the dormitory – from the stolen generations. P.125

Hooper explores the Doomadgee family, and writes of its stories. Cameron’s grandmother, Lizzy Daylight, and her brother Willy, were “the ones who sang the serpent so he won’t get angry. They sing his head so he can feel heavy.”
Palm Island isn’t only the scene of Cameron Doomadgee’s death, or a backdrop for the riots, but a collision of tropical beauty (“pale green sea so luminous…I could almost see the life in it”) and dysfunction (a fourth-grader’s picture hung at the airport proclaims “I feel safe when I’m not being hunted.”) Hooper explores the island’s past as well as its present, and the human rights issues that emerged there throughout the twentieth century.

The Tall Man makes you feel unsettled, and dissatisfied with the state of human rights in Australia. Is law enforcement different depending on race? Is curiosity into incidents like those on Palm Island less fierce because the man who died was Indigenous? How is our trust in the police affected by deaths in custody? How should police respond, in order not to erode that trust? Is broader Reconciliation possible when we can’t get smaller scale interactions right?

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