Some Canadian friends recently asked me to recommend some good books that would give them a comprehensive understanding of Australia and its treatment of Indigenous Australians. I have to admit I was pretty stumped. Partly because I’m—embarrassingly—not sure I’m across our treatment of Indigenous Australians, and partly because as someone with Irish and Scottish heritage, I’m not really the best person to speak authoritatively or advise anyone on the issues.
Walkley Award-winning journalist Chloe Hooper wrestled with similar problems in reporting on—and then writing a book about—the death of Cameron Doomadgee in police custody. She does not have Indigenous heritage herself but worked hard to understand and then sensitively portray the story behind the tragic (and suspicious) death of Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004.
The tall man from which the book derives its title has ominous significance in Indigenous culture, and Hooper draws parallels between this figure and the towering height of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, the man widely suspected of beating Doomadgee so viciously in his cell that Doomadgee’s liver was cleaved in two. It would be easy to cast Hurley as the two-dimensional villain, but Hooper endeavours to examine the complexity of the issues surrounding Doomadgee’s death and to embed them in the context of broader Palm Island and Indigenous Australian issues.
Six years on, and with more investigations being carried out and blame being attributed in just the past two days, the details of Doomadgee’s death remain murky. Hurley denies doing it, but the medical evidence, timelines, and eyewitness accounts suggest, if not otherwise, that there’s at least more to the story than Hurley’s telling.
Hooper has a lilting, poignant writing style that’s simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking. Through it, she outlines a small, troubled community, an upstanding senior sergeant with an unblemished record, and relatives who could easily be bitter about the circumstances of Doomadgee’s death, but who are, surprisingly, unremittingly forgiving and tender. She also examines the domino-like effects of the case on the community and whether there’s any truth to the accusation of a closed-ranks cover-up by the police.
It was while reading The Tall Man that I was both amazed and embarrassed at how little I knew—know—about Indigenous Australian history. For example, that Palm Island was a sort of dumping ground for Indigenous Australians, with people from various and different regions now effectively displaced and trapped there, having lost touch with or never knowing their real homes.
The beauty of Hooper’s book is also that in spite of clearly becoming close to Doomadgee’s relatives, she somehow maintains an entirely objective stance. Hurley was offered as much opportunity to be interviewed (he declined), and she actively tries to understand the events from his perspective.
Did he do it? It’s incredibly, frustratingly hard to say. I can say, though, that The Tall Man is a subtly layered book that I’ll both re-read and recommend.