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Posted on 7 Jun 2018 in Non-Fiction | 3 comments

ALEXIS WRIGHT Tracker. Reviewed by Kathy Gollan

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In Tracker (winner of the 2018 Stella Prize), hundreds of stories are told to build up the portrait of an immensely complex and gifted man.

This is a big book about a big personality but it’s not a traditional biography. Most of it consists of transcribed interviews, with Tracker Tilmouth himself and 50 of his friends and colleagues. Alexis Wright has collected and edited the interviews but her only original writing is in the Introduction. If, like me, you are most comfortable with signposting and context in a biography, then it won’t be until you give up those expectations and just go with the flow that you’ll start to enjoy this book. And it’ll take the length of the book before you understand the import of the first sentence, ‘How do you tell an impossible story, one that is almost too big to contain in a single book?’

To tell this impossible story Wright has chosen:

… to follow an Aboriginal tradition of storytelling practice for crossing landscapes and boundaries, giving many voices a part in the story. This blessing of stories and voices was very much Tracker Tilmouth’s way of creating stories for others to expand and make use of in creating the vision splendid.

In practice this means hundreds of stories are told, sometimes the same story from a slightly different angle; not to make a point about the narrators, or the many-faceted nature of truth, but to build up, through the accretion of detail, the portrait of an immensely complex and gifted man. As Wright says of him:

… he said he was like a virus that could spread everywhere and never be gotten rid of, or like a chameleon that could change into whatever anyone wanted him to be. He could eat the second-guessers and spit them out for breakfast through a single comment that would leave you flabbergasted for days after. You couldn’t match him. He left you for dead, and he knew enough about almost everything.

It’s an official biography, in the sense that all the interviewees were chosen by Tracker before he died. So they’re all friends and his choices reflect the legacy he wanted to be remembered by and the world he moved in. I would have loved to have heard from his wife and daughters but they aren’t there, except in occasional references to ‘Mrs T’. Nor indeed are any women, apart from Jacqui Katona and his cottage mother from childhood; women are almost absent from the story.

Tracker and his two brothers were taken away at a young age to Croker Island after their mother died, even though both their father and aunt wanted to raise them. The older siblings were taken elsewhere and Tracker didn’t connect with them until he was an adult.

He was lucky in being assigned to the cottage run by Lois Bertram, a remarkable woman who nourished the minds and spirits of her charges. There was plenty of riding around on ponies but also reading, a skill Tracker picked up quickly and put to good effect when some of the cottage kids were preparing to run away:

I grabbed the Bible and I said Righto …You blokes all go to church, and they all said, Yes, we all go to church. I said, This is one of the rules of the Ten Commandments, thou shalt not run away. I had them stuffed … I told them this is not me you are arguing with, you are arguing with the Bible. They all went back to bed.

Not that Tracker had anything against running away, it was just that, even at the age of seven, he knew that on a small island like Croker it wasn’t practical. This deadly combination of pragmatism and showmanship was the hallmark of how he operated all through his life.

When the Croker Mission was closed down, he fetched up with the Liddle family in Central Australia. Again he was lucky. As John Liddle says:

I think he enjoyed it and he was the centre of attention and that sort of stuff, so he just stayed with us for years. We could not get rid of the bastard. I think my mum and dad actually treated him more like their family than any of their own family to tell you the truth, because he was such a skinny little bugger, and I think they felt like he could not find out who his family was. He was a little bastard of a kid … he was like Dennis the Menace. He was a kid who was always in your face, doing this and doing that, asking questions, that sort of stuff.

He was taught by Bess Liddle to say hello to any old people he passed in the street because the chances were they would be related to him, although he barely knew them. Many others from the Croker Island Mission fell by the wayside under the stress of not really belonging anywhere, but Tracker was able to parlay this lack of connection into a connection with everyone.

He worked in abattoirs, on cattle stations, as a mechanic, and played AFL. He picked up several Aboriginal languages: Pitjantjatjara, Luritja and Yankunytjatjara. Liddle goes on to say:

He got to know all the big men … proper people from the bush. All those heavies, the big ceremonial blokes, he used to drive them around. So Tracker worked with all those old fellows and the old women. He knew all those mob.

There was no doubt he was very smart – if he’d been white and middle class he would have been called a gifted child. As an adult he could have become very wealthy; he was entrepeneurial, and an ideas man. The word visionary comes up more than once. But he chose to use his gifts for the benefit of all Aboriginal people. Many colleagues in the book talk of the frenetic pace he set as he travelled between traditional owners, Indigenous bureaucrats and city politicians, crisscrossing the countryside.

His thinking was about how to protect Aboriginal language, culture and society and at the same time have economic independence. He had seen too many times how dangerous and destructive it was to rely on kindness from Canberra, and he was scathing of those Aboriginal leaders who he felt got too close:

They appeal to the non-Indigenous society by the very nature of them being acceptable. They are not going to let the caffè latte curdle. They eat the right biscuits at the right time and use the right fork for the cheese … This is why the white people like them, because they know it is cheaper for the white blokes to have a mob of blackfellas discussing points of view without any effect, than actually getting out there and doing what needs to be done.

He was scathing of a lot of people, and a couple of contributors allude to the number of enemies he made.

He could talk the talk himself when he needed to and he was not unfamiliar with the halls of Parliament. Sean Bowden (Bowds), a Darwin lawyer, accompanied Tracker to Parliament in 2005. He is frank about how much he learned from Tracker, firstly how to find your way through the baffling corridors by noting the colour of the carpets. Then there was his constant networking, and his range of contacts, particularly with the parliamentary mavericks. Bill Heffernan (Billy Heff), Bronwyn Bishop (Bronnie) and Bob Katter (Bobbie) were all fans. Even Robert Hill (Hilly), the then Minister of Defence, allowed him to interrupt a meeting to make his case. The Labor opposition was easier to access, Martin Ferguson, Gerry Hand and especially Daryl Melham:

In the end Daryl said, Tracker, you’ve been belittling me, having jokes at my expense for the last hour, now what the hell are you here for? At which point we got down to business again, and then we were staying at Daryl’s that night … Later on I am saying to him, You’re unbelievable, the cheek of doing this. He said: Learn it mate, learn it, do it, just do it, I’ve learnt it.

His passion was economic self-sufficiency. As economist Ian Manning says:

Tracker was one of the early ones to realise that royalty-type flows and Toyota money and so on were all very nice, but you do not get the kind of guaranteed income flowing, and you do not get the kind of self-respect and so on too that comes from employment.

For Tracker the need for jobs outweighed everything, be it native title, recognition, reconciliation, or environmentalism. If it isn’t economically sustainable, it won’t work. That’s what mattered to him and that’s what he achieved. Centrefarm Aboriginal Horticulture and Mistake Creek, an Aboriginal-owned cattle station, are but two of the enterprises he was instrumental in setting up and that are still thriving today. When he was in the leadership group of the Central Land Council they commissioned research that revealed the large number of white-owned businesses in Alice Springs that relied heavily on revenue from Aboriginal organisations, yet offered them no apprenticeships or discounts. They ended up buying and running one of the Toyota dealerships in Alice Springs.

He encouraged those around him to dream big, but at the same time it had to be relevant to community:

You cannot have a social structure imposed on an Aboriginal society … unless the Aboriginal people own it and share in it, then it fades … just about every white community advisor I have known and worked with, I have accused of parking jumbo jets on community air strips. It is wonderful, it is magnificent, but no one knows how to fly it, and if you did take off, you were definitely not going to land, you are going to crash and kill everyone in the community. So parking jumbo jets on community airstrips is what I try and avoid.

It’s a cliché to say someone is able to straddle two cultures but in this book we see really how unusual it is and the unique perspective it can give. Even in job interviews, when interviewing people for a job at the Land Council, according to academic Richie Howitt:

… one of his interview questions was, Hey! Do you like dogs? If you did not understand where that question was coming from, you would think this guy was an idiot. Why would you ask this at a job interview? And yet if you were terrified of dogs you could not do the work. There was this jump to the core issue without necessarily putting it in an intellectual way, that was so much a part of Tracker’s style.

So if you want to be challenged, intrigued, amused, and to get an inkling of what it takes to make grand ideas happen, as well as getting to know something about Tracker Tilmouth, I recommend this book.

Alexis Wright Tracker Giramondo 2017 PB 650pp $39.95

Kathy Gollan is a former executive producer and editor for ABC Radio National.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.



  1. This is such a terrific review. I would like to link it in our Australian Women Writers review database, if you are agreeable with that. We haven’t had many reviews of this book listed yet, and this is such a great insight into what to expect if you read it.

    • Of course! Do please link away.

  2. I love that this story is getting so much attention, and I’m overjoyed that Wright won the Stella. There is so much more room for Indigenous stories in the Australian literary landscape, and especially ones such as this that challenge the format and genre expectations of the reader. Thank you so much for sharing your review, fantastic work!!