THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Thursday, December 17, 2015

COAL CREEK by Alex Miller

Miller absorbed the history and geography, the language and love of both black and white worlds in that region, and over the decades transformed them into a personal totem: a story fund, a moral frame, an outback aesthetic.” – Geordie Williams, The Monthly

The characters have been me.” – Alex Miller

Coal Creek, Miller’s eleventh novel, is set in the late 1940's in the stone country of Queensland, a region that he knows intimately, and one that he populates with authentic characters based upon his knowledge of the people who lived there.

Alexander McPhee Miller was born in London in 1936, the son of a Scottish father and an Irish mother.  At age sixteen he immigrated from Britain to Australia and spent a number of years working as a stockman in the Queensland Outback.

He then attended the University of Melbourne, graduating with a degrees in English and history in 1965.  He published his first short story in 1975 and his first novel in 1988. Since then he has published ten more novels, with Coal Creek, published in 1913, being his latest.

Many of Miller’s novels explore the divide between the coast and the interior, and that includes Coal Creek. At the heart of the story is the tension created by a couple who migrated from the coast into the stone country and who are unwilling to accept things as they are, but set out to “better” them. They and their coastal sensibility and sense of superiority are totally at odds with the people and the environmental conditions of the outback. And in the end, it is their undoing.

While reading this beautifully written story, I was struck by the fact that with some small changes it could have been set in the southwestern U.S. The descriptions of weather, vegetation, and landscape had a familiar ring even though I have never visited Australia. Furthermore, the people in Miller’s story who felt at home in the stone country would have felt the same in the Texas Panhandle or that state’s Llano Estacado. And the people who felt out of place and wanted to initiate change in the stone country would have experienced the same reception as anyone attempting to do the same on the Texas plains.

Queensland Outback
This is a story that builds slowly, but beautifully, leading to two climaxes, one tragic, but inevitable, and the other poignant, but unexpected. It is also a haunting story that will stay with me for a long time. 

"Coal Creek  is the work of a masterful storyteller who fully deserves a wider readership beyond Australia." -- Dimitri Nasrallah, Toronto Star

This was my first Alex Miller novel; it will not be the last.