Hello and welcome to my stop on the blog tour for Paris Savages by Katherine Johnson. Thanks so much to Lesley Crooks of Allison & Busby for the invite and for my copy of the book via NetGalley. Before I share an extract here’s what the book is all about:
“Fraser Island, 1882. The population of the Badtjala people is in sharp decline following a run of brutal massacres. When German scientist Louis Müller offers to sail three Badtjala people –Bonny, Jurano and Dorondera –to Europe to perform to huge crowds, the proud and headstrong Bonny agrees, hoping to bring his people’s plight to the Queen of England.Accompanied by Müller’s bright, grieving daughter, Hilda, the group begins their journey to belle-époque Europe to perform in Hamburg, Berlin, Paris and eventually London. While crowds in Europe are enthusiastic to see the unique dances, singing, fights and pole climbing from the oldest culture in the world, the attention is relentless, and the fascination of scientists intrusive. When disaster strikes, Bonny must find a way to return home.”
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A crowd was gathering at the raised iron cage that housed the polar bears, spotlit by a low-angled sunbeam filtered through an elm. Hilda saw Herr Hagenbeck in his grey hat and dark suit, climbing the metal steps to a platform that jutted from the cage. She waved to him but he didn’t see. He removed his hat and waved it above his head until his audience fell silent. Then, holding the dented crown to his chest with one hand and gently stroking the curved felt brim with the other – as if the hat, too, were a living creature – he began. In a booming but unforced voice, he told the visitors that the animals in his care were trained by kind methods, never hot irons. Never heavy ankle chains.
‘Here, we believe in kindness over cruelty,’ he said. He pointed at the white bears. ‘Polar bears are expert hunters and highly intelligent. They deserve to be treated well. One day, when we expand the zoo, I will not even use enclosures.’
There were gasps of surprise and people shook their heads, which Hilda took to be disbelief rather than disrespect. It was clear Herr Hagenbeck was a celebrity in his home town.
A squeal drew Hilda’s attention, and she leant out the window. Directly below, children were riding three Galapagos turtles on the small patch of lawn. A young girl looked up from atop a turtle and, seeing Hilda at the window, pointed as if she were an exhibit. Hilda took a step back, then, not wanting to seem ungenerous, raised her hand to wave, but the girl was already looking away. Two boys in sailor suits and hats, ribbons trailing down their backs, were running from the polar bear cage towards the bamboo huts where the Sinhalese families were seating themselves around a small fire, over which sat a large basin of water. A man wearing a grotesque mask and a shaggy costume began a dance, and Hilda guessed he was one of the devil dancers Hagenbeck had mentioned to her. The audience clapped enthusiastically, and Hilda looked again at the time: a quarter past four. She watched as a Sinhalese woman positioned herself, straight-backed, outside one of the huts. The woman wore a white cloth draped over her shoulder and a long skirt; her arms were heavy with silver jewellery. Silver rings glinted in her nose and ears, and a long ornate silver ‘v’ dripped from a comb positioned on top of her head, brilliant against her coal-black hair. Hilda had never seen such a beautiful woman; it was no wonder people were staring. The exotic woman’s infant fed at her one exposed breast, stretching the nipple to look back at the audience, who were standing just feet away. There was no barrier. The infant extended its hand to the crowd, and some of the children laughed and waved back. A boy in a neighbouring apartment house threw a saucer-sized pretzel into the grounds near the Sinhalese huts, and a dark-skinned boy wearing a web-like arrangement of shells across his chest picked it up and began to eat. What must it be like, Hilda wondered, for children to go to sleep with the sounds of tigers and polar bears? She noticed a German woman give a Sinhalese girl a small basket of fruit.
Fifty yards away in the back corner of the garden, behind a high stick fence, Jurano ventured from the doorway of the hut assigned to the Aboriginal group. The audience that had gathered on the other side of the fence cheered. Jurano went to a leaning arrangement of small branches and pieces of timber, which appeared to be the beginnings of another shelter, and tried to stabilise it, but from his body language Hilda could tell it was a lost cause. Alongside him, the two wallabies cowered under an elm, jumping at the stick fence every so often.
A young woman near the polar bear cage pointed to Jurano in his cut-off trousers covered with a loincloth. She tugged at the man beside her, perhaps her husband, to go there instead.
‘Ah, Fräulein, I see you have spotted one of our Australneger,’ Hagenbeck boomed. He moved his hands downwards in the air as a conductor instructs an orchestra to lower their volume. The crowd obediently hushed and Hagenbeck continued. ‘The natives are newly arrived, as you have no doubt heard. There is much excitement across all of Europe over their upcoming tour. Here at the thierpark, you are the first to see them!’ Someone gave a cheer. Hagenbeck went on, ‘You can approach, but I ask that you stand back when they demonstrate their weapons. They have strange contraptions called boomerangs and sharp spears, both of which they use to catch their meat and to defend themselves against enemies.’
‘Aren’t they the same thing, meat and enemies?’ a man called, lifting his top hat in appreciation when the audience laughed.
Hilda saw Hagenbeck shaking his head, but he failed to correct the man. She searched again for her father. If he was nearby, he would step forwards and correct the statement. But he did not.
Bonny was next out of the hut, also wearing short trousers overlaid with his loincloth. He appeared tall in comparison to the audience and had painted several white ochre stripes across his bare chest. Hilda felt a rush of pride and took a steadying breath. The audience would soon see for themselves what he was really like, what he was capable of. Bonny began to stretch his arms overhead and Hilda glanced again at her mother’s watch. The performance was due to start in ten minutes. She could not wait any longer. She quickly shut the window and drew closed the curtains before snatching her shawl from her suitcase and pulling the door to behind her.
About The Author
KATHERINE JOHNSON lives in Tasmania with her husband and two children. She is the author of three previous novels and her manuscripts have won Varuna Awards and the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes. She recently completed a PhD, which forms the basis of her latest novel, Paris Savages.