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Authors: Thomas; Keneally

Flying Hero Class

BOOK: Flying Hero Class



“DELIVERS ALL THE ROLLER-COASTER APPEAL OF A CONVENTIONAL THRILLER … to raise hard questions about moral responsibility in the face of political oppression.”

New York Newsday

“THIS CLIFF-HANGER IS A MUST-READ.… Only rarely can the publishing world offer a truly universal novel, a book that could translate into any language without sacrificing a poetic phrase, a nuance, a subplot.”

—United Press International

“IF THERE IS ANOTHER NOVEL PUBLISHED THIS YEAR THAT SUCCEEDS ON AS MANY LEVELS, WE WILL BE LUCKY INDEED … Keneally's prose immediately invites comparison to writers such as Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess and Brian Moore—and comes off well.”

San Diego Union


—Lawrence Thornton, author of
Imagining Argentina

“COULDN'T BE MORE COMPELLING—OR TIMELY … the ideas are deep and compelling, and the characterizations are absorbing in their complexity.”

Chicago Sun-Times


Philadelphia Inquirer

“‘HERO' FLIES IN A CLASS BY ITSELF. Thomas Keneally is a Booker Prize and Los Angeles Times Book Award winner. If
Flying Hero Class
is any measure, this Australian author had better get a larger trophy case.”

Boston Herald


—Milwaukee Journal

“A MOVING PSYCHOLOGICAL TALE … in prose that has earned Mr. Keneally consistent praise.”

Dallas Morning News


—James Kunetka, author of
Shadow Man


Detroit News and Free Press

“A RICH AND REWARDING READ … a fascinating study of the psychology of terrorism.”

Los Angeles Times


Publishers Weekly

“TAUT, COMPELLING … Keneally is a masterful storyteller, with an uncanny ability to employ humor, suspense, and meditations on morality in equal quantities, while crafting almost flawless works containing flesh-and-blood heroes.”

Newark Star-Ledger



“STRIKES AN EXCITING, BELIEVABLE BALANCE between incisive analysis of terrorism, the psychology of hostages, primitive magic and the transforming power of personal courage.”

Hartford Courant

Flying Hero Class

A Novel

Thomas Keneally

By the same author:

The Place at Whitton

The Fear

Bring Larks and Heroes

Three Cheers for the Paraclete

The Survivor

A Dutiful Daughter

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith

Blood Red, Sister Rose

Gossip from the Forest

Season in Purgatory

A Victim of the Aurora



Cut Rate Kingdom

Schindler's List

A Family Madness

The Playmaker

To Asmara



For children

Ned Kelly and the City of Bees

To my daughter Margaret,

for her splendid research into the minds

of hijackers.

A question heard among Western Australian desert Aboriginal tribes:

“Who dreamed you

Carried you

Set you down?”


The remote Australian tribe called the Barramatjara had two early brushes with Christianity, both of them so different as to make the tribespeople question whether Christianity was one entity or a series of intrusions from remote space.

For some reason Benedictine monks from Spain had, in the last years of the nineteenth century, conceived an ambition to bring the Barramatjara to Catholicism. The Benedictines traveled with camels on the tracks of the first European explorers, four-square British travelers who had not intended to blaze a trail for papism, who were good members of the established church or of rugged nonconformism.

But on the Western Australian coast, the Benedictine monks had already found an echo of Spain and—as had been the case with Spanish missionaries in California and New Mexico—it grew to be a matter of urgency for them in the name of Catholic Spain to find the farthest place and the farthest people. They were not frightened off by the prospect either of thirst or of the spear. Their Savior and their template had already died of thirst and the spear upon the cross.

The Benedictines brought lay brothers who were carpenters and who built the remotest boys' and girls' dormitories in the world out of sawn planks, transported from the coast by camel. The dormitories were meant to separate the Barramatjara young from the calls and rituals of night, of marsupial rat and banded possum, of euro and wallaby, of blue-tongued lizard and crow, of numbat and desert eagle.

A century later, Frank McCloud, manager of the renowned Barramatjara Dance Troupe, imagined Dom Estevez, the abbot of the Barramatjara, patrolling the dormitories on horseback by night, a carbine on his shoulder to prevent the kidnapping of his students and their bearing away for instruction in the older initiations.

Dom Estevez—it needed to be said—also had the humane intention of saving young girls from marriage to the older men to whom they'd been promised in childhood.

Reading briefly into the history of the Benedictine Order in Australia, McCloud was informed that by abandoning the coastline to the heavy-handed Irish priests, the Benedictines would lose their sway over the nation as a whole. But it was as if they were conscious of the sacrifice and were still content, if it came to a choice, to hold its Barramatjara core.

In the early years of the twentieth century they ordained eight of the Barramatjara Dance Troupe's great-grandfathers and great-uncles priests. Vestments and chalices were shipped from Catalonia and carried across the wilderness by camel train to be employed in the ordination of the Barramatjara priests. As Pizarro strangled the king of the Incas, the Spanish friars now sealed up the lips of the Barramatjara with the sacraments of Christ.

The priesthood didn't take with the Barramatjara, however. Dom Estevez, riding around the thirsty borders of the Gibson Desert to visit his parishes and priests, found chalices tossed under bushes, dispensed with as no good for holding water. He would discover sets of vestments—the red of martyrs, the white of virgins and of the requiems of children, the black of Easter week and of the death of adults, the purple of Lent—all these gifts of devout Spaniards to the remote Barramatjara priests—cut up and distributed among various elders. Estevez records his shock at finding a Barramatjara man out hunting and dressed in a cutaway green Pentecost chasuble. The priests themselves had taken wives from the neighboring people, the Arritjula, whom the Benedictines had not yet instructed in the mysteries of faith.

Estevez was not a narrow man, although his grief now was heroic in scale and put him in the way of his own death. He wrote in his notebook, “They are not guilty, because they are the most complacent race on earth. When they were under my training, they did everything they could to please me and to believe courteously what I believed. What I took to be an understanding of Catholic dogma may have simply been politeness. And likely they were polite to any old man in the wilderness who asked them for their Lenten vestments, and to any woman who offered herself.”

After the failed ordinations, Estevez stayed on in Baruda a further three years, vicar-general for the Barramatjara. But he had lost credit with his superiors. Some of the lay brothers were withdrawn by their superiors in Spain, and donations were sporadic. Even in Barcelona the faithful could sense the unsuccess of the mission to the Barramatjara. The Barramatjara were no longer interesting or hopeful pulpit news.

In the end Estevez himself, with his one remaining aged lay brother, was ordered back to the coast. As he went into his dotage on the shore of the Indian Ocean north of Perth, the dormitories built to separate Barramatjara children from the mysteries became prey to sandstorms and termites and Barramatjara people looking for wood for their campfires.

For the next twenty years many of the Barramatjara lived on in Baruda, addicted to rations of tea and sugar, flour and tobacco, doled out by the protector of Aborigines, a government official.

Baruda, after all, lay at the meeting place of two dry creek beds, and there was always water there, if not on the surface, then in deep waterholes. So what the Barramatjara called “big ceremonies” could be performed there, when people from all over the region, united by some common ancestors—by the Two Brothers, for example, who had pierced each other's nasal septum with a bone just two miles out on the Easter Creek road; or by Malu the Kangaroo Man—could collect in large numbers.

The burden of European presence was next taken up by cattlemen. Many of the younger Barramatjara scattered to cattle stations at the eastern end of the desert country and earned their rations rounding up cattle. The Barramatjara worked with the cattle for eighty years. Few of them listened to their Arritjula relatives from farther north, who had found work in bauxite mines and who believed
to be the best way to absorb the impact of the newcomers, to work them out, to find a way of living with them. The horse and cattle mustering was the way the Barramatjara chose. The way of cattle had been ordained for them by the dreams some of their elders had. The way of mining had not been ordained by any of their dreams.

In the early 1920s, German Lutherans appeared at Baruda. Using trucks, they had crossed the arid stretch from Alice Springs in the east. To get through sand bogs, they used matting, which they laid under the wheels of their vehicles. Like Estevez, they were men of powerful character. Like him, too, they built dormitories for the young men and women.

They would stay there for fifty years.

All the Barramatjara remembered Pastor Freiniemer, who protected them from massacre in the twenties and thirties, who made himself unpopular with cattlemen by demanding better terms for those of them who worked as stockmen farther east. They considered him one of those mystifying whitefeller Christians, so different from the whitefeller miners and cattlemen, since he frowned on booze and fornication, the preferred activities of the others. Less mystifyingly, he frowned on brutality as well, more than he did on their mysteries. He was moderately loved by them for it.

It had been in Freiniemer's dormitories that most of the Barramatjara Dance Troupe took their first instruction as Christians. McCloud the troupe manager could imagine them accepting it all in the same spirit their grandfathers had accepted ordination from Estevez. Attending services with their native politeness. Absenting themselves in the bush, however, for three months at a time for the big ceremonies of initiation.

Even early in the tour, before he was further enlightened on the matter, McCloud liked to think that the Barramatjara were now on their own mission to those who lay in that outer dark which went by the name of Europe and America.


Before the Takeoff

It always surprised the troupe manager, Frank McCloud, how calmly they sat. In their big first-class seats, all of them, even tormented Bluey Kannata, looked as self-contained as rich children. They had conquered New York, and it was hard to know what that mean to them. Now they were going—composedly—to Frankfurt. There the full-color programs had already been printed up in a language Whitey Wappitji and the others had no familiarity with.

The troupe were calm about that venue, too. Here, at the start of their flight, they were suffering no preperformance trembles for the sake of Frankfurt. They never seemed to hold any narrow postmortems that McCloud could see, or blame each other for mistakes on stage. They didn't worry about the perversity or mental blinkers of critics.

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