PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Standing on Soil Soaked in Blood: Rohan Wilson's 'The Roving Party'

Rohan Wilson composes a work of historical fiction that never shies away from the horrors that gave birth to modern-day Tasmania.

The Roving Party

Publisher: Soho
Length: 282 pages
Author: Rohan Wilson
Price: $25.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2014-02

The Roving Party dredges up the mud at the bottom of collective memory, and brings the bloody past to the surface equanimity of the present. It is less a novel than an epic, tragic poem, imagining the doings of Tasmanian pioneer John Batman as he hunts and slaughters Aboriginal Tasmanians in exchange for land and money.

Alongside Batman, the fictional Black Bill, raised and educated as if he were a white man, specifically targets the warrior Manalargena, another historical character, who in the early 1800s led guerilla-style resistance attacks on European colonizers. Author Rohan Wilson imbues Manalargena with mystical powers, including the gift of prophecy and a seeming imperviousness to mortal weaponry. Even these supernatural qualities, however, never detract from the grotesque realism of the story. Wilson’s goal seems to be to make his countrymen look at the earth they stand on and see it as if it were soaked in blood, as it often is over the course of his story.

The novel begins with a promise and a threat. The promise lies with Black Bill’s wife, Katherine, who is pregnant. Manalargena, on a purposeful visit to Bill, tells him he sees that the child will be a strong boy. But he also threatens Black Bill, whom he knows intends to join John Batman’s roving party. You can follow him, he tells Bill, and it may seem that you are on the same side -- but you are not. Follow him, he warns, and you will lose all sense of who you are and who your people are.

From this point on, Black Bill makes Manalargena his private quarry. Batman believes this is because bringing down the feared warrior will bring the capturer renown and an especially large bounty, but Black Bill now feels personally threatened by Manalargena, on levels both physical and philosophical. He believes taking him down will quell his internal conflict, which consists of a struggle between the hatred and disgust he has been taught to feel for the very people to whom he belongs by birth, and the knowledge of the “right and true” of the world, which he finds in the promise of love and peace from his unborn son.

The moments when Black Bill dreams of his son are the only moments of peace. Waking, he watches a girl not far out of childhood herself being led about by a rope tied around her throat, carrying her infant son and later being locked in an outhouse to prevent her escape, but also to protect her from threat of gang rape.

He shoots an injured man point-blank in the face, and watches the bits of his skull speckle the rock behind him and his blood soak the earth. When asked by a member of the roving party whether by killing the man he has put himself afoul of the law, Black Bill replies that you can’t murder a black any more than you can murder a cat. The contradiction between the callousness of this statement and the color of Black Bill’s skin strikes his questioner and the reader with equal impact.

But Wilson does not single out Black Bill for his complicity in the genocide of Aboriginal Tasmanians. He links the violence of man to nature, and in doing so implicates everyone whose life depends on the patch of earth they’ve taken from another human being. Which is to say, all of us. He communicates this quite clearly not only through repeated images of blood literally soaking the earth, but by images of men themselves covered in earth.

His chapters often begin and end with the start and close of day. A lunar eclipse precedes an attack on the men by a pack of dogs sent by the Aboriginal tribe the men are hunting. The austerity of Wilson’s prose allows the ugliness of his subject matter to stand out in stark relief. In this landscape, there is no longer a question only of why Black Bill would so willingly kill other black men -- the question is instead asked of all of us.

Therein lies the power of Rohan Wilson’s debut novel. There is no redemption. There is no expiation. There is no moral. It is not pleasant or easy to read, and is in fact at times exhausting in its episodic delineation of horrors. From the time of Black Bill’s embarkation on his bloody quest, we know that he is damned whether he lives or dies, because no one can commit such acts of brutality and not be changed himself.

And then there is the question of Bill’s son. In a story about the past, the people of the present are the unborn children, inheriting a culpability that cannot be erased by the passage of time.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.