Stanley, Peter: Black Saturday: a satisfying story about a profoundly important event

Peter Stanley*

Black Saturday: a satisfying story about a profoundly important event’, Honest History, 28 February 2019

Peter Stanley reviews Peg Fraser’s Black Saturday: Not the End of the Story 

While reading Dr Peg Fraser’s insightful and illuminating Black Saturday – in Victoria, over the tenth anniversary weekend of the beginning of that terrible firestorm – I realised that she and I had been crossing each other’s tracks, metaphorically if not literally. We were both working for museums – I for the National Museum of Australia, she for Museum Victoria – and we were both seeking to explain the same catastrophic event. I was meeting and listening to the people of Steels Creek, trying to answer their question, ‘What happened here on 7 February 2009?’, a quest that produced in 2013 my Black Saturday at Steels Creek.

Peg Fraser’s mission, on the other hand, was to help to create and curate the Victorian Bushfires Collection intended to document, and to commemorate, the experience of the 2009 fires. This book is a product of that museum project, and a powerful demonstration it is of the value of museums as institutions able to interpret our society and the challenges we face.

Dr Fraser concentrated on the township of Strathewen, about ten kilometres north-west of Steels Creek as the crow flies. Steels Creek was, and remains, a very small community of some 200 people, many well-off retirees, self-employed vignerons, market gardeners or small-scale primary producers and, while it has no existence as a town, it exhibits a strong community ethos. (Indeed, one of the conclusions of my Black Saturday was that communities strong before calamity cope better afterwards.)

Strathewen, it emerges from Dr Fraser’s nuanced and analytical account, was a different community to Steels Creek, one rather more challenging to understand. Though Strathewen faced the same fire as Steels Creek and was about the same size, Strathewen seems to have been more complex, socially and geographically. Its social complexion seems more diverse, and its situation – among dense bush in difficult, ridge-top country – led to it losing 80 per cent of its buildings and more than one in ten of its people.

This sense of trauma – the effects of the deaths of family, friends and neighbours and the destruction of a familiar place – rightly permeates Dr Fraser’s book. Her awareness of the emotions of the people about whom she writes makes this not just a finely crafted piece of oral or community history, but also an impressively empathetic human encounter with people who experienced one of the most terrible human ordeals short of war, and who suffered the effects of that brief but profound horror ever after. (Visiting Steels Creek on the tenth anniversary brought home to me that, however the country may have recovered and how many homes have been re-built, many people were still living with the effects of that weekend of fire.)

Dr Fraser’s exploration of the experience, effects and memory of Black Saturday proceeds, not surprisingly for a book coming out of a museum collecting project, through a series of objects. The book could have been entitled ‘Black Saturday in Eight Objects’, in imitation of a recent publishing phenomenon. Fortunately, Dr Fraser or Monash University Publishing declined to follow the fad. But it is a very effective interpretative device to use, as the engine to drive the analysis, eight objects which Museum Victoria gathered.

The book opens with a map showing the extent of destruction in Strathewen and which allows the author to start her story – or her account of Strathewenites’ stories – long before February 2009. She uses the map, and then a timber-getting jack, as the ‘hooks’ on which to hang her explanation of what Strathewen was and how it had developed as a community set in the dense bush of central Victoria, an environment which gave its people their livelihoods and which, when it took fire, destroyed them.

Peg Fraser’s choice of objects reveals aspects of the experience of the fire, notably a melted mobile phone, which she uses to argue that Black Saturday was the first fire ‘in which almost everyone had a camera in their back pocket’ (though hardly anyone seems to have actually filmed the fire). The objects she selects to carry her story deal especially with the aftermath of the fire, because memory and the fire’s effects particularly interest her as an oral historian concerned with the complexity and fragility of memory.

739_0_EM11323Strathewen after the fire (CSIRO/Nick Pitsas)

One of the most absorbing chapters deals with the survival and collection of home-made poems and posters revealing ‘loss, anger and opportunity’, which is a sign that Dr Fraser took her cue from the feelings of survivors of the fire in Strathewen. The depth of both emotion and analysis that this book expresses is possible because, as well as collecting emblematic objects, Museum Victoria staff also conducted careful interviews with donors and other people of Strathewen (those willing to speak; the author acknowledges that some people were too traumatised, preoccupied or suspicious of government attention to participate, a phenomenon I recognised from Steel Creek).

One of the reasons that Peg Fraser’s Black Saturday deserves to be reviewed on the Honest History site is that as an historian she engages honestly with both the emotions of the people about whom she writes and about her relationship with them and the stories they tell. For example, in the months after the fire, hand-written notices appeared in the Hurstbridge Bushfire Relief Centre, the nearest unburnt town to Strathewen, known simply as ‘Helen’s Place’ after Helen Legg, who co-ordinated the volunteers who worked there for months after the fire. The notice quoted some of the observations the bushfire survivors had heard from those who had not been affected by the fire, such as ‘This bushfire has been very good to you … I might start a fire and see what I can get’.

Even though Australians donated $300 million, bushfire survivors remained understandably sensitive to such insensitivity. Peg Fraser observes that, by recording and displaying such artefacts, Strathewen’s survivors ‘turned individual negative experiences into a sense of shared hardship and a statement of solidarity’. Her book is not just a chronicle of heroic defence against fire and then a coming together of Australians helping others – because, as the NRMA advertisement avers, ‘help is who we are’. The book deals with the bad as well as the good; in that it is ‘honest history’.

True to her subtitle, Dr Fraser deals mainly with the aftermath of the fire, using several objects – knitted cushion covers, a ‘hard hat’ and the remains of a brick chimney – to explore survivors’ attitudes to the rebuilding of homes, communities and relationships, all of this with a notable openness to discuss the evidence and even to confront sensitivities, ambiguities and contradictions in survivors’ testimonies. For instance, in discussing ‘narratives, testimony and history’, Peg Fraser devotes several pages to discussing the story of Zelma and her late husband John Rowley (survivors of the 1983 Ash Wednesday fire). Peg found that Zelma’s insistence on sticking to a rehearsed narrative distressed and angered Peg (as an interlocutor) because Zelma used their story to emphasise ‘a narrative where everything was against them’, and in which Zelma resisted Peg’s attempts to see it as anything else, even to the point of arguing over the wording of descriptive catalogue records. (‘Why are you asking these questions? I have told you what happened’, Zelma would retort in response to Peg’s proper concern to corroborate details.)

Peg, deeply concerned at her response to Zelma’s intransigence, describes reflecting on their antagonism. She came to see that Zelma’s version mattered to her because ‘every story she told pointed to John’s wisdom and integrity …, every word in the catalogue mattered because … he would have cared about every word’. Once Peg acknowledged her own feelings, her ‘simmering resentment fell away and I was able to complete the project with good grace’. It is this preparedness to incorporate the historian’s emotions and to reflect on her relationship with both the subject of the book – a devastating fire – and with the people who populate and animate her interpretation – that makes the people Peg speaks to more than mere ‘interview subjects’.

Strath_Central-dome-openingStrathewen Memorial 2013 (Urban Initiatives)

Black Saturday: Not the End of the Story reflects the preoccupations of museums as I recall them from my time as a museum historian. Peg Fraser is interested in questions of identity, community, gender, in what she called ‘memorialisation’ (or ‘commemoration’, as we used to say in English), and in the significance of ‘materiality’, which used to fascinate my erstwhile colleagues at the National Museum of Australia. Some of these concerns seem to be of greater interest to the museum community than to a wider readership. But this book can be read with instruction and pleasure without the reader being particularly interested in what Fraser calls ‘the oral history process’. She makes the important point that ‘[t]hese stories remind us that people are individual, complex and ever-changing, and that – although these traits are heightened in the face of catastrophic change – they are common to us all’.

Black Saturday is, like the best history, about both the specific and the universal. Ultimately, Fraser writes, ‘this is a story about stories’. It is indeed, and in subtle and rewarding ways. It is both a story of Black Saturday, and how that fire affected the people of one Australian community, but it is also a story about how people remember, and how objects play a part in both remembering and telling; and it is a story of how a curator-historian goes about the complex task of creating a satisfying and justifiable version of such a profoundly important event, one with no neat end either in life or in literature.

* Peter Stanley of UNSW Canberra was the first President of the Honest History association. His many publications include Black Saturday at Steels Creek; others can be found using our Honest History Search engine or our author listing.

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