Black Saturday: Not the end of the story
Monash University Publishing, $29.95 pb, 268 pp, 9781925523683
Stories are at the heart of Peg Fraser’s compassionate and thoughtful book about Strathewen and the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. The initial impression gained by the subtitle, Not the end of the story, could be one of defiance, a familiar narrative of a community stoically recovering and rebuilding. Yet this book is anything but hackneyed, and the title proves provocative. How could the story of Black Saturday ever end? Is there just one Black Saturday story? Who is making this story, and why? The great American fire historian Stephen J. Pyne has observed that there are three paradigms of academic research on fire – physical, biological, cultural – and that it is the cultural paradigm that is the most neglected. Black Saturday is a ‘story about stories’ and thus represents an important step in the understanding of how Australians live with fire. Fraser challenges the clichés that influence so much public discussion about bushfire tragedies.
The legacy of Judge Leonard Stretton’s Royal Commission Report into the 1939 Black Friday bushfires looms over any bushfire writing in Australia, but Fraser respectfully moves away from Stretton’s shadow. Despite his sympathetic tone, Judge Stretton did not place witness testimony at the heart of his Commission. Fraser chooses to begin Black Saturday with a loose narrative of selected quotes from her oral interviews with survivors of Black Saturday. Analysis and insights are left for later chapters as readers are encouraged to ‘feel, in some very small degree, what the narrators felt’. This merging of individual stories into a single loose overall narrative is powerful without feeling drawn out.