Kiwiflora's Reviews > White Earth

White Earth by Andrew McGahan
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Mar 07, 11


The winner of the 2005 Australian literary prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, this is a stunning novel set in the Darling Downs, a diverse farming region west of Brisbane. Prior to European settlement, because of its lush indigenous grasses,the region was important as a food source and culturally to the local Aborigine tribes. The arrival of the European farmers in the 1820s and 1830s put a stop to that, and the Downs quickly became the food basket for the region. Farming communities and towns quickly developed, as did large stations and homesteads which dominated their local communities. The indigenous people, as happened many places elsewhere, were displaced and effectively disappeared.

With this background in mind, the story begins in 1992 with 9 year old William's father having an unfortunate accident on the farm, resulting in his death. Forced to leave the farm, William and his depressed mother are taken in by an unknown great-uncle, John McIvor, who owns what is left of one of the big stations, Kuran station established by the White family. He lives in the huge original and now very derelict homestead. The motives for this altruistic act become fairly clear as John attempts to mould, some would say brainwash, young William into his heir. It also becomes fairly clear that John is quite mad, with an unwavering obsession to keep the property in family ownership. This, of course, makes for quite a dangerous situation for a 9 year old boy to be in. No father and a non-functioning mother means he finds himself slowly being drawn into the spell his great uncle is weaving.

At the same time, law changes are taking place that will give local Aborigines greater claim to lands that were traditionally used before European settlement. John knows secrets about the land the station is on that pertain to this, and he is determined that no one else will find out about them, thus safeguarding the property for his own interests.

Sinister yes, and spooky yes, underlying tension and danger oozing throughout the narrative, with young William being manipulated beyond his childish understanding. And yet, the uncle never comes across as evil. His whole life has revolved around Kuran station, he loves the land with a deep passion and enormous respect, and although he doesn't have the financial resources to make it productive again as it once was, he does not want to see it destroyed. The gift of the clever writer is that you actually do feel sorry for the old man as he tries to protect all that is important to him.

Any 9 year old child left to their own devices will project their own imagination and childish perceptions of the world onto what is going on around them. As William comes more and more under the spell of his great uncle's dream, he almost begins to operate in a parallel universe so that as the reader, at times you don't quite know yourself what is real and what is not.

The story is cleverly told, with chapters alternating between John's story which essentially tells the history of Europeans in the area since the 1820s and how he came to be at Kuran; and William's story. There is always a sense of impending doom, with the two symbols of 'white' and 'fire' constantly threading themselves through the story. The third character in the story is the land itself. What a love for the land this author has - the vast pastures, the hills, the water holes, the dryness, the dust, the rain when it occurs. I read an interview with the author which I now cannot find. He grew up on the Downs so has this deep seated love and respect for the land plus a number of things that happened in the book also happened to him.

My only criticism of the book is that I did feel at times, William was much older than 9 years old. He has to deal with a lot, and some of his perceptions and reactions are way beyond what I think a 9 year old's brain would process. Nevertheless this is a marvellous story of Australia and the continuing conflict between the traditional owners of the land and the European new comers.

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