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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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