One spring day in late 1992, when William was halfway between his eighth birthday and his ninth, he looked out from the back verandah of his home and saw, huge in the sky, the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. He stared at it, wondering. The thunderhead was dirty black, streaked with billows of grey. It rolled and boiled as it climbed into the clear blue day, casting a vast shadow upon the hills beyond. But there was no sound, no rumble of an explosion. William was aware of the smell of burning . . . but it was a good smell, a familiar smell. The smell of grass, of wheat, of the farm itself.
His father dead by fire and his mother plagued by demons of her own, William is cast upon the charity of his unknown uncle – an embittered old man encamped in the ruins of a once great station homestead, Kuran House. It’s a baffling and sinister new world for the boy, a place of decay and secret histories. His uncle is obsessed by a long life of decline and by a dark quest for revival, his mother is desperate for a wealth and security she has never known, and all their hopes it seems come to rest upon William’s young shoulders. But as the past and present of Kuran Station unravel and merge together, the price of that inheritance may prove to be the downfall of them all. The White Earth is a haunting, disturbing and cautionary tale.
- Winner 2004 The Age Book of the Year (fiction)
- Winner 2004 The Courier Mail Book of the Year Award
- Winner 2005 Miles Franklin Literary Award
- Winner 2005 The Commonwealth Writers Prize South East Asia & South Pacific Region
- Winner 2012 National Year of Reading Queensland
- Shortlisted 2004 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards
- Shortlisted 2006 Festival Awards for Literature (SA) Award for Fiction
- Longlisted 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
To understand the novel The White Earth, we need to consider the historical context of the book. It was published in 2004 but set in 1992. It is set in rural southern Queensland in the year of the Mabo decision that declared the historical excuse of Australia being Terra Nullius (an empty land ready for settlement) was legally deemed to be unacceptable. There were calls for Reconciliation, and calls for an acknowledgement of the past suffering of Australia’s first people. The novel comes at a time of heightened feelings, preceding the Kevin Rudd apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008. It is also a time of the formation of the exclusionist One Nation Party, in a rural Queensland setting not far from the setting of the novel. By setting his book in the same region as the One Nation Party and also embedding a colonial history through the sage of the White family and the history of Kuran House, McGahan has shown how this exclusionist view of Australia is part of a longer colonial legacy that has to be broken.
Flora MacDonald, from the ACT Branch of Australians for Reconciliation, writes:
We need to include Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders in our communities so that we can all learn from one another and develop a real awareness, understanding, appreciation and respect for the culture and history of Indigenous Australia . . . Its basis is the inclusion of the Indigenous peoples of Australia, not their exclusion. And that is healing for all of us.
If we consider this call for ‘appreciation’, ‘respect’ and especially ‘healing’ we see the novel as providing more than just a criticism of past actions; it joins other calls for reconciliation and is therefore an important political text.
In the present 21st century context, post Kevin Rudd’s apology and outward acceptance of reconciliation, readers cannot appreciate the intensity of emotions around this issue and the fear of contestation of land ownership at the time of the novel. McGahan himself grew up in rural Queensland, and he therefore was conscious of the anxieties of the farmers about land which he places into a bigger human perspective about the atrocities of the past, acknowledging the rights of the Indigenous people. McGahan remembers the landscape of his childhood and comments on influences on his novel in an interview with Matthew Condon in 2005 for the ETAQ’s journal Word’s Worth:
The White Earth it just drifted along out of lots of ideas. I’d been researching the Darling Downs for my own personal interest, the history of it, black and white. It was– when I first thought of this it was the mid 90s, it was the time of Pauline Hanson, the rise of Pauline Hanson. It was the time of the Wik decision. Native title had come in 93, Wik was in 96. And there were all sorts of fears and panic flying around Western Queensland about what, what’s it going to mean to our properties and all that sort of stuff. There were these little right wing groups coming out of the woodwork, militias and things. There were rumours of the Klu Klux Klan having meetings in the Darling Downs – which I don’t think was true but it’s a great image so I added it to the book. All this sort of stuff was just swirling around and then there was this great big house there to use as a focus of it all, this ruinous old house that I’d imagined it as. And so the story was there.