Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Book Review: The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper

In November 2004 36 year old Cameron Doomadgee was arrested on Palm Island after he swore at the island’s senior police officer. Within an hour he was lying dead in a police cell, having suffered horrific internal injuries which, according to the two pathologists who later examined his body, are usually seen only in victims of car or aircraft crashes.

In The Tall Man Chloe Hooper has produced a compelling account of this tragedy and the events which followed: the explosive riot in which the police station was burned, the drawn out inquest and its judicial review, and the subsequent trial of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley – the first police officer ever to be charged over an Aboriginal death in custody.

Ms. Hooper won a Walkley award for her coverage of the inquest into Cameron Doomadgee’s death and it is not hard to see why. The Tall Man is at once journalistic writing of the highest order and a deeply reflective inquiry into the personal stories of those involved and the sad history of race relations and conflict on Palm Island. Incidentally, the “tall man” of the title is not simply a tag for the 200cm Hurley, but also refers to a persistent figure of doom in Aboriginal mythology and is an indication that this is not a two-dimensional story. Striving to find the truth and meaning of the events she is recounting, Hooper explores the way of life, culture and beliefs of two very different groups of people, islanders and police, who are forced into close and sometimes violent contact.

Restraint, sensitivity and empathy are hallmarks of Hooper’s approach and must have done much to build trust between herself, the bereaved family and others in the island community. And although Sgt Hurley declined to be interviewed, Hooper goes to considerable lengths to build up a picture of the man by following his career through several Aboriginal communities and talking to those he met along the way. These include activist Murandoo Yanner with whom Hurley developed what many might consider an unlikely friendship. The result is a complex, enigmatic and sometimes disturbing portrait of a man, in a job with conflicting demands, who appears to combine both good cop/bad cop elements in his character.

There is much in this book that is confronting. For me the most chilling moment was learning that the cries of the dying man must have been clearly audible beyond the cell doors, yet no-one came to help him or called for medical aid. The only attention he received was a kick from a junior police officer.

Understandably these wounds are still raw in the Palm Island and wider Aboriginal community, but this book cries out to be read and taken to heart by all of us. It will not leave you unmoved.

Copies are available for loan from JCU Library. Check the Library Catalogue for details.
Call number: 364.349915 HOO

Reviewer: Liz Downes
Rating: *****

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