The Death of John Lacey by Ben Hobson

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Australia in the nineteenth century was largely uncivilised and violent.  Much of the violence was directed at the Indigenous peoples as the spreading European settlements encroached more and more on the Indigenous lands.  In retaliating, the Indigenous peoples were essentially protecting the lands they saw as being taken away from them with force.  Coupled with this ongoing ‘warfare’ was the violence and greed of those Europeans chasing wealth through the discovery of gold.

It is within this historical period that The Death of John Lacey is set.  The novel proper opens in 1857 – just at the tail end of the Victorian gold rushes.  It is a tale of two sets of brothers – Ernst and Joe Montague, and Graham and John Lacey.  From the brothers’ incidental contact in 1857 to their subsequently tragic contact in 1870, the story throws open the harsh and violent milieu of the second half of the nineteenth century in Victoria.

Aged 18 in 1847, Edwin Montague was ‘indicted for stealing six sovereigns, nine half-crowns, one shilling and a box, value one penny’ [7] and found guilty.  His penalty was transportation for life to Australia.

Ten years later and now with a ticket of leave, Edwin, his wife Isabelle and son Ernst are eking out a meagre living on a farm near Ballarat.  Isabelle is struggling with being so far from her home in Scotland and gradually withdraws from her husband and son.  Contributing to her withdrawal is the increasing contact with ‘the blacks’ who come to their shack for handouts.  Reflecting the general European view of the Indigenous peoples, she is terrified of their increasing presence and demands that her husband deals with them.  Her attitude and her consequent withdrawal from her family lead to unforeseen consequences for Edwin and Ernst.  Ernst when ostensibly out working in his paddocks is in reality meeting his lover Youramonsy with whom he fathers a child.

But as just one example of the introduction of European disease to the Indigenous peoples which ultimately has a catastrophic effect, Edwin infects Youramonsy and causes her death.  On Youramonsy’s death, with no regard for his son’s heritage or his people, Edwin forcibly removes the boy and brings him home to Ernst and Isabelle.  The expectation that Isabelle assumes the care of the boy – now named Joe – is the tipping point for her descent into madness and ultimately her death by fire.

In 1853, John and Graham Lacey enter the settlement.  Sighting an Aboriginal family who has found gold and laying bare the colonial disregard for the humanity of the Indigenous people, John Lacey captures the family’s son and uses him to seek out gold in the nearby hills.  Binding him overnight so he is unable to return to his family, John forces the boy to dig for gold until Lacey’s fortune is assured.   Not prepared to risk others finding the gold or the wrath and revenge of the boy’s family should he be allowed to return to them, Lacey cruelly kills the boy and hides his body.

This heinous act resonates through the remainder of the novel.  As Lacey says himself when he lies dying in the ground: He did not regret he had killed the boy.  He regretted only he had not killed him so hard he stayed proper dead. [3]

Thirteen years later in 1870, Ernst and Joe are running from the law; John Lacey has established a town bearing his name where he has a coterie of devotees who will do anything for him.  Inevitably, the narrative trajectory of the three collides and tragedy unfolds.  Joe and Ernst are accused of setting a fire to Lacey’s hotel – a fire in which the proprietor dies.

Now on the run from John Lacey, Joe hides in the church where he is protected by the preacher.  After further bloodshed and the death of Lacey, Delaney is faced with the moral dilemma – should he protect Joe or hand him over to the troopers?  He decides that ‘Joe would make his own world.  What he did with his guilt was his own choice’ [338].  There is more than a hint of redemption in this final act to this engrossing and sensitive novel – Delaney is saved from a moral error by placing the decision with God and thus freeing himself from a decision which was not his to make.

Despite the violence perpetrated by the settlers against each other and more significantly against the Indigenous peoples, there are moments when a different view of the Aboriginals is expressed.  Whether it is Edwin learning the language of the local peoples and communicating with them, or Ernst’s open acceptance of their presence, there is sensitivity in their portrayal and respect in describing their culture.  The author acknowledges the support of the local Wadawurrung people in his writing of the novel.  His intent was to in some way undo the misrepresentation of Aboriginal voices – and he has achieved this.

The Death of John Lacey – whether categorised as historical fiction, an Australian western or a morality tale – succeeds on every level.  It is marvellous book and deserves to be read widely.

The Death of John Lacey


by Ben Hobson

Allen and Unwin

ISBN 978 176106 589 7

$32.99; 342pp





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