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Paris Savages by Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson is an Australian author who has written four books. Her most recent being Paris Savages. To put into perspective the work that went on to create this beautiful novel, Johnson recently completed a PhD which forms the basis of Paris Savages. Based on the true story of the Badtjala people, specifically three Aboriginal from Fraser Island in 1882; Bonny, Dorondera and Jurano. Instead of taking on and assuming Aboriginal viewpoints, Johnson creates the fictional character of Hilda, who is related to the German Engineer Louis Muller who is known to have transported the group to Europe. 

People may question the integrity of Johnson as she is a white woman writing about Aboriginal experience and suffering. To those people I say: READ IT. 

Paris Savages was completely mesmerising. Not only did I get that beautiful ache in my chest when you read a heart-wrenching novel, but I learnt something. As a white Australian, and I will not speak for everyone, but I feel quite sheltered to the truths and realities of what the Aboriginal people suffered and continue to suffer. This novel created a new narrative which completely distorted The Greatest Showman idea I had about human zoos in this time period. By idea, I mean literally all I knew about them was P.T. Barnum, because of the movie. Gotta love Hugh Jackman, our national treasure, but P.T. was a bloody dick in the movie and he was a MASSIVE DICK in real life. BUT IT GETS WORSE, these human zoos operated all over the globe and people were being EXPLOITED and used for the sake of entertainment. 

So now that contextually, everyone has an idea of what I’m talking about, Johnson investigates the living exhibits in Europe in 1882-1883. Through Bonny, Dorondera, and Jurano different fates and outcomes of these exhibits are explored. As I mentioned, the story is told through the perspective of Hilda, a teenage girl who has grown up around the Badtjala people. She is not familiar with prejudice or racism and provides the reader with a wholesome and rational perspective of her friends, who everyone is desperately trying to make out as savages. I love the way Johnson uses Hilda as a narrative device because she was a character that I could relate to and furthermore it allowed me to sympathise with her anger and aggression as an onlooker whose friends are being persecuted. Hilda, in my opinion and hopefully yours, is the most understanding white person in the novel. Her lack of awareness and the deception she faces only adds to the severity of the savagery. What is worth sacrificing for the sake of success or recognition? I think the answer varies for everyone in the novel, but Hilda maintains her integrity despite being faced with this decision at points. The inclusion of Hilda is important to both the reader and was important to Johnson. Hilda is used as a tool so that Johnson didn’t disrespectfully use an Aboriginal voice, as she herself isn’t Aboriginal and cannot speak to the experience. Hilda’s perception through her white privilege shows us the harsh discrepancies within the history and allows us to truly consider who actually are the Paris Savages. 

Johnson projects the personalities and culture of the Badtjala people so clearly, my heart was really with them. She highlights and incorporates important elements of Aboriginal culture in a respectful way. This novel would not work without complete accuracy about the lives and customs of Bonny, Dorondera, and Jurano but my favourite part of this was how their culture gave them an element of power over the gullible onlookers.

“If someone in the crowd had wanted to touch him, they only needed reach a hand out. Instead, Bonny did a mock throw towards them, and the audience shielded their faces with folded arms and moved further back. Hilda saw Bonny’s shoulders shake with amusement. He was playing with them. It was hilarious, a comedy not a drama.”

Bonny and Jurano continue to outsmart onlookers and organisers by capitalising on the undeniable interest in them, by selling copies of a photograph of himself with his traditional bar’gan, most of the money he will keep for himself. However, despite these comical and savvy elements the notion that a person’s discomfort is worth a monetary value is so discouraging, despite it being true. There is an interaction between Bonny and Dorondera when Bonny is telling her she needs to be brave as she is about to undergo an examination and casting procedure. Bonny says to Dorondera “what do you want for this? What can Mr. Muller buy you?” and she replies, “A fur… I want a fur.” Interactions like these are littered throughout the novel and highlight the ghastly nature of self worth and how it was projected onto the indigenous people. Dorondera is willing to subject herself to humiliation and uncomfortable situations for the sake of materialistic gratification or money. BUT, in the same vein can you really blame them? If monetary/materialistic gratification was all you could get from a traumatic experience, you would take that for all it's worth. 

I have very little to say in the way of negatives about this book. It was very enlightening for me to read something so different and so truthful. I adored the way Johnson presented a realistic representation of the Badtjala people’s story. They were presented as people who had autonomy, motivations and they participated because they thought it was what was best. This added another layer to the emotionally jarring nature of the book because it’s hard to see how it is going to work out for them. However, Johnson does an excellent job in creating a satisfying close to the story, where as a reader you feel satisfied with the outcome and the justice fictionally served. 

History cannot be changed, but I think books like this can change the future. They create a conversation about what happened and they bring habits of mistreatment to the forefront of peoples’ minds. Hilda was a crusader in this book and she stood up and questioned the actions of those around her, even though she was only one person fighting the fight. I think this is something that could and should inspire readers to emulate in their lives. Paris Savages broadened by perceptions on fact/fiction. While things can be made to look flashy, fun, and happy (e.g. The Greatest Showman), this novel goes to show that there is always more to a story, especially when it comes to history. So, through the use of Hilda I think it has encouraged me to be more immersive in my thinking. I need to put myself in someone else’s shoes in order to sympathize. It isn’t easy, and that doesn’t come naturally in most instances, but I’d rather that than rolling over, accepting facts fed to me, and ultimately siding with the oppressor. 

Paris Savages was a book that I already look forward to rereading and will be recommending to a lot of people along the way. It is always nice to encounter books that make you think, feel, and consider a plethora of emotions while also making you question how you read the book in such a short time because you are so consumed by the story. Paris Savages was such a treat and I urge everyone to let this beautiful story of bravery, culture, and the fight against injustice consume you.

Paris Savages

By Katherine Johnson

361 pages. 2019.

Buy it here (AUS)

Buy it here (US)

Buy it here (UK)

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