Paris Savages written by Katharine Johnson, publisher Allison & Busby, is available in hardcover, ebook and audiobook format from the 23rd July 2020.
Fraser Island, Australia 1882. The population of the Badtjala people is in sharp decline following a run of brutal massacres. When German scientist Louis Müller offers to sail three Badtjala people – Bonny, Jurano and Dorondera – to Europe to perform to huge crowds, the proud and headstrong Bonny agrees, hoping to bring his people’s plight to the Queen of England.
Accompanied by Müller’s bright daughter, Hilda, the group begins their journey to belle-époque Europe to perform in Hamburg, Berlin, Paris and eventually London. While crowds in Europe are enthusiastic to see the unique dances, singing, fights and pole climbing from the oldest culture in the world, the attention is relentless, and the fascination of scientists intrusive. When disaster strikes, Bonny must find a way to return home.
To pre-order/buy link: https://amzn.to/2BgYfeD
I am so pleased to be involved in the blogtour celebrating and promoting the launch of Katharine Johnson’s latest novel: Paris Savages.
I have the pleasure of sharing an extract for you:
Hilda rests the dip-pen across the inkwell and stands to stretch. Dry in the mouth with thirst and slick with sweat, she goes to the table at the foot of her father’s bed and pours a glass of water from the jug they keep there. Each evening, she fills the pottery jug from the nearby creek and makes a habit of checking the contents of her glass for insect larvae before she drinks, secretly afraid that if she missed one, or two, the larvae would grow into mosquitos inside her. It is only since her mother died that Hilda and her father have shared this front room, their single beds pressed to either side.
Louis’s elbow-patched coat hangs from the end of his bedpost, the envelope from Germany protruding from the pocket. Hilda remembers the visiting missionary delivering it, her father’s keenness to see what it said and his desire for the man to be gone.
‘It is with some reluctance that I pass this on to you, Herr Müller. I have not heard much of Herr Hagenbeck, but Barnum, the American equivalent, is, as you know, a fraud. Am I right that you also received correspondence some weeks ago from him?’ the missionary asked. His repeated and ill-pronounced use of the German title ‘Herr’ failed to impress Hilda’s father, who shook his head dismissively, yet he used his penknife to carefully slice open the envelope so that the return address remained intact. On the envelope’s reverse side, Hilda made out the word ‘Hamburg’ and a crest in the shape of a lion.
‘Later.’ He kissed her forehead.
But her father did not show the letter to her, choosing instead to tell her of its contents: the invitation to go back to Germany, the idea to take three of their friends. He made it sound, indeed, like a God-given opportunity, if one believed in God.
Now, the morning sun rising steeply, burning off the mist blanketing the banksias and other flowering plants of the woodland understorey, it is Hilda who holds the envelope. Through a crack in the hut’s crooked door, she sees her father and Jurano coming along the southern track into the camp. Jurano is carrying his spear and a fish. Louis takes a seat cross-legged on the white sand beside Jurano and begins sharpening a stone tool against a larger rock the way he was taught. He laughs warmly at something Jurano says, then tests the sharpness of the tool by slicing a long fair hair from his own head. The Badtjala man nods at his student, who at forty-four is exactly twice his age, and slowly claps his hands. Jurano’s laughter is high-pitched. It is the kind of laughter that is difficult not to take part in, but today Hilda stays quiet.
Her nightdress clings and she opens the window shutter wider beside her father’s bed. Dorondera and her young cousins are already some distance along the beach collecting shellfish, dillybags bulging on strings around their necks, a white ribbon flashing in Dorondera’s hair. The ribbon was a gift from Hilda’s father. Bonny is there also, broad-backed and handsome, with Little Bonny on his shoulders, scouting. Little Bonny calls out and Bonny sets his nephew on the ground, casts his spear and hauls up a flapping fish.
Hilda moves deeper into the shadows of the shelter in case her father should look up. He has told her often enough that it is wrong to read another person’s mail, but her mother had impressed upon her, too, that it is wrong to keep secrets, and she cannot help but feel her father is doing just that. She looks at the carte de visite and reads the text in the margin: C. Hagenbeck with Nubians. Carl Hagenbeck’s Thierpark, Hamburg. The black men are pictured with elephants. Hagenbeck is leaning on a stick, his beard neatly trimmed, a light-coloured homburg on his head.
Sweat is building on Hilda’s face and under her nightdress, and she is overwhelmed with the need for cooler air. In the small back room, she quickly changes into a white cotton day dress that belonged to her mother and takes the letter and carte de visite pressed to her skirts as she exits the shelter, walking swiftly until she is safely behind the hut and hidden in the shade of a pandanus. If her father saw her leave, he will assume she has continued on, following the narrow path through the banksias, and is relieving herself in the privacy afforded by the canvas screen he erected there for her. He will keep an ear out in case she shouts, Snake!
Hilda wipes her hands against the dress and opens the letter, gold-green under the pandanus frond. In the dappled light, a mosquito swarm hums. She takes several leaves from a neighbouring eucalypt, crushes them against her skin, and reads in German:
Sehr geehrter Herr Müller,
I am proud to have pioneered anthropozoological exhibitions to meet the great public interest in seeing exotic peoples first-hand, and to facilitate the growing interest in anthropological science. It is to this end that I invite you to bring several Australian Aborigines to Germany. I am offering to sponsor your expenses, including your passage back to Europe.
You may be encouraged to know that I believe in showing people naturally, displaying their skill with weapons, their exotic dances and songs. In short, their culture. Perhaps you also have been contacted by the American P. T. Barnum, who I believe is advertising in Australia and contacting agents directly. Although I supply animals to Barnum’s circuses, my approach to exhibiting exotic people cannot be compared with his.
Hilda breathes out. It is as her father explained, although she wonders if the German showman realises her father is an engineer by training, not strictly a scientist. Surely he has heard of him and the scandal of the bridge. She rereads the end of the letter and recalls the missionary asking if her father had also received mail from the ‘fraud’ Barnum. Finally, she locates an envelope bearing a green Washington stamp.
9 October 1881
I desire to carry out as far as possible an idea I have long entertained of forming a collection, in pairs or otherwise, of all the uncivilised races in existence and my present object is to ask your kindness to render me what assistance is in your power to acquire any specimens of these uncivilised peoples.
My aim is to exhibit to the American public, not only human beings of different races but also, where practicable, those who possess extraordinary peculiarities such as giants, dwarfs, singular disfigurements of the person, dexterity in the use of weapons, dancing, singing, juggling, unusual feats of agility etc.
The remuneration of these people in addition to their board and travelling expenses is usually nominal. I shall see that they are presented with fancy articles such as are acceptable and a small allowance monthly. If interpreters should be absolutely necessary please inform me what would be the cost which must be moderate. For yourself I should be glad to reimburse you for any outlay.
I wish to thank you kindly to favour me with an early reply as convenient.
- T. Barnum
Heat rises in Hilda’s neck and face, and a sick feeling consumes her. Why hadn’t her father told her that he had received this? Surely he would not have anything to do with a venture that collects people as curiosities and promises them ‘fancy articles’, as if they were children.
‘Papa,’ she calls, and her father raises his head, a smile still on his lips. The smile goes when he sees her holding the envelope with the distinctive green stamp. He stands and walks towards her, telling Jurano in Badtjala that he will return to his lesson soon.
‘Hilda, Liebchen,’ he says, studying her. ‘What are you doing going through my things?’ He sighs as he reaches for the mail, but she refuses to hand it to him, clutching both letters instead behind her back like she used to with a find her parents considered dangerous – a nail or screw or piece of iron from a construction project on the outskirts of the colony. He takes another long breath. His bare chest, stronger since their arrival on K’gari, expands and slowly contracts. He lets out a warm chuckle as one might do if amused by a child, yet something in his expression suggests he is nervous.
Hilda is aware of tears welling in her eyes. Didn’t he see her now as a companion as well as a daughter, someone he could confide in?
‘Why didn’t you tell me that Barnum had contacted you?’ she asks. ‘It’s awful what he wrote.’ She walks towards the fire.
‘Because it is of no concern. I have declined Barnum’s offer.’ Louis shakes his head and Hilda stops, reluctantly placing the mail in his outstretched hand.
‘Hagenbeck is precisely what Barnum is not,’ he says. ‘Why would I bother you with the rantings of that showman?’
Hilda releases her own withheld breath as her father continues.
‘I am forcing no one. Herr Hagenbeck’s offer is generous and our friends have accepted the invitation. They will gain so much, if Bonny is not too proud to learn.’ He smiles and takes her hand. ‘They are excited, Hilda. As I hope you are.’ He studies her. ‘You don’t doubt Hagenbeck’s intentions? Is there something else concerning you?’
Hilda shakes her head.
Her father looks towards Jurano, who is now talking with his wife and again laughing light-heartedly at something, perhaps even making a joke at their expense.
‘Jurano will miss his wife. She really doesn’t want to come?’ Hilda asks.
‘No. I offered several times. She doesn’t want to join us.’
‘What if he gets sick? What if any of them get sick?’
‘People fall ill here, too, Hilda.’ He looks at her pointedly and she knows he is talking of her mother. ‘I need you to be supportive. There is a great deal of interest to see them before . . .’
‘Before they are all dead?’ She quickly wipes her face dry with her sleeve, the lace cuffs of her mother’s dress almost entirely worn away. ‘These people are not weak, they are being killed!’
Jurano looks up from his own conversation and stares towards them.
Louis reaches out and squeezes Hilda’s shoulder. He presses the index finger of his other hand to his lips, asking that she speak more quietly.
‘It is why I want to take them overseas. To find an audience. Your mother always wished others to see our friends as we have,’ he says, his voice low. He pats her shoulder and starts again with growing conviction. ‘I simply cannot stand by and do nothing while they are moved off the island as some say will happen within the year. Your mother’s life, her death, must count for something. It is my greatest hope that there will soon be an Aboriginal reserve bearing her name.’ He looks at Hilda intently, and she is surprised to see that he is holding back tears.
‘I thought you would be more excited, Hilda. You’re a young woman now. There are so many more possibilities for you back home. Look at you.’ He waves his hand in admiration, the silver ring with the family crest glinting in the sun. He has only recently started wearing the ring again.
‘Beautiful, smart, wilful,’ he continues, laughing on the last word. Laughter is something he has done more of since being on the island, although less so in the last year. ‘Your mother would have been so proud.’ He looks down at the beach, serious again. ‘Of them, too.’
‘And when will you bring them back?’
He picks a dry frond from a dja’ga plant, the one the settlers call black boy because of its spear-like flowering body, and feeds it into the gap between his front teeth.
‘You will bring them back?’
‘Of course,’ he says. ‘When tensions here have eased and we have finished our tour. When we have drawn sufficient attention. Bonny says he wants to meet the Queen of England, no less. He wants to tell her personally what the native people of this colony are suffering in her name.’ As if thinking Bonny’s request quaint, Louis twirls the long, grass-like leaf in his smile.
Why hadn’t Bonny told her of this? ‘Then we must,’ she says, turning towards the beach.
About the Author
KATHERINE JOHNSON lives in Tasmania with her husband and two children. She is the author of three previous novels and her manuscripts have won Varuna Awards and the Tasmasnian Premier’s Literary Prizes. She recently completed a PhD, which forms the basis of her latest novel, Paris Savages.