Billy and Tommy were inseparable brothers growing up on a cattle ranch in Australia’s Queensland. Drought made life hard, their cattle hardly worth mustering for sale. Their difficulties are exacerbated by a cruel neighbor, Sullivan whose wealth is a bitter contrast to their poverty.
Their father dislikes Sullivan and in particular dislikes him for his cruelty to the Blacks, as they refer to Aboriginal Australians, along with a frequent usage of other racist epithets. The neighbors disapprove of their father’s friendliness with the Blacks, but don’t get the idea he’s some social justice warrior. He won’t let his long-time friend and employee Arthur in his house.
When their ranch is attacked in their absence, the boys go to the closest neighbor, Sullivan, for help. The police officer is still there and soon a posse is gathered to seek vengeance. We seek the brothers beginning to separate as Billy enthusiastically goes along with everything and Tommy, from whose point of view the story is told, questions what they are doing. What happens is an all-too-common tragedy of colonialization.
Only Killer and Thieves is an Australian novel that will feel very familiar to Americans. It’s a frontier Western about ranchers in conflict with the indigenous people whose land they have claimed. It has familiar tropes, the hardscrabble life of cowboys mustering the cattle, of families fighting for survival during drought, and of course, the conflict between whites and the people whose land they have stolen. People who like Westerns will find much to like in Only Killer and Thieves.
However, it defies the usual conventions of the genre by questioning the morality and blatant racism that motivated the white settlers and their enforcers. With the story focused on Tommy’s viewpoint, we see his resistance to community mores. We also get the viewpoint of the complete white supremacist from Noone whose maniacal fanaticism recalls Colonel John Chivington who justified the murder of children at the Sand Creek Massacre by saying “nits make lice.”
The story is well told and fascinating. It’s a good coming of age story with important insight into white supremacy and how completely it can overwhelm humanity. Many people in the book hold offensive opinions and express them in offensive language, so the book is not for everybody. However, the use of epithets is not gratuitous, it’s always revelatory of white character defects, but still frequent enough to be troubling. Sadly, the book is all too real both in its conflict and its resolution.
I received an e-galley of Only Killer and Thieves from the publisher through Edelweiss