Essay by Rebecca Starford
Fire is an element deeply embedded in the Australian consciousness. In recent times it has been associated with natural disasters such as Ash Wednesday and Black Saturday, terrifying and deadly bushfires with biblical monikers. The danger of fire has been always been present in our literature, too, from the works of Dorothy Mackellar to Judith Wright to Les Murray. It tears through communities with devastating consequences, but in the bush it also has the capacity to renew and regenerate – that is, after all, how Indigenous Australians have applied fire to the land for thousands of years. But as Andrew McGahan’s extraordinary novel The White Earth (Allen & Unwin, 2004) reveals, some blights on the national conscience can never be scorched clean.
The first breathtaking pages of The White Earth describe a fire tearing through wheat fields. This is the first of many fires, and as the novel progresses it is this particular element that will come to symbolise some of the more frightening, and ugly, aspects of the Australian psyche.
Before the publication of The White Earth, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2004, Andrew McGahan had already carved himself a reputation as one of Australia’s most acclaimed – and eclectic – writers. His debut novel, Praise (Allen & Unwin, 1992), won accolades for its honest depiction of disenfranchised youth, and centres on the feckless Gordon, a young man living in inner-city Brisbane who drifts through life with little motivation. It is a bold, provocative work, lauded by critics as a representation of a new Australian genre called ‘grunge lit’, which is characterised by authentic, semi-autobiographical explorations of gritty lives, and has included the works of Christos Tsiolkas and Helen Garner.
McGahan followed up this bestselling debut with 1988 (Allen & Unwin, 1996), a prequel to Praise and set in a lighthouse in northern Australia. After that came Last Drinks (Allen & Unwin, 2000), a critically acclaimed crime novel that describes a disgraced journalist’s return to Brisbane ten years after the infamous Fitzgerald enquiry, which in the late 1980s exposed extensive corruption in the Queensland Police and the state government led by Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
Despite this varied subject matter, McGahan has always had a deep and reflective engagement with Australian politics, both past and present. As he told me in 2012 in an interview with Kill Your Darlings, ‘when I’m writing about contemporary Australia…I can’t avoid [politics] in some form or another’.
The White Earth opens in 1992 in the Darling Downs, a farming region in south-west Queensland. This is an era of enormous social and political change in Australia’s contemporary history, especially around land rights for Indigenous people: the Labor government, steered by Prime Minister Paul Keating, is fighting to make law the recognition of unique ties particular tribes have to land. The novel was, at the time of publication, McGahan’s most flagrantly political work (the subsequent 2006 novel, Underground, took the politics further – satirising the contemporary far-right and imagining a dystopian Australia in the near-future). Eight-year-old William’s father dies in the fire at the family farm. There is an explosion on a tractor in the wheat, which he witnesses from the back porch of his parents’ house. It looked, to William, like ‘the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion’.
After his father’s death, William and his emotionally unstable mother move in with his reclusive elderly uncle, John McIvor, at Kuran House, which is part of an enormous and infamous estate that once ruled the region. After the modesty of his parents’ small house and land, William arrives at Kuran House full of nervous anticipation. But the mansion is run-down, almost derelict, a shadow of its former opulence:
There were hints that it had once been something grander. He could see pathways meandering between the weeds, some of them paved with fractured stone slabs […] Great shaggy trees loomed all around. And sticking up crazily at the very front of the yard, where the hill dropped away, a diving board perched on what must have been the rim of a swimming pool.
William and his mother take residence in a small apartment on the ground floor. After the local doctor falsifies a medical certificate that enables William to have the rest of the year off school, he spends his days roaming downstairs, picking ‘his way amidst tattered furniture, leaning cupboards, mouldering boxes of clothes and decaying heaps of furniture’.
The only other occupant is the elderly housekeeper, Mrs Griffith, who is hostile to the visitors. She warns that parts of upstairs are forbidden – the flooring is unsafe. William is sceptical; like all inquisitive children, he feels drawn to these secret, eerie parts of the house.
Initially William doesn’t see his uncle, who spends his days locked away in his study, but it isn’t long before he is summoned upstairs. For William’s mother this is a chance for her son to ingratiate himself with John McIvor; she has inheritance in mind. ‘Pay attention to what he says,’ she instructs. ‘He’s not doing this just for fun.’
And while John McIvor takes a curious interest in his nephew, he remains obtuse on matters of inheritance, asking William to help prepare batches of pamphlets for his upcoming political rally. What he wants from William becomes clearer when they go on a tour of the farm, where William begins to ‘hear the pride in the way his uncle said: “my land”’ and understand John McIvor’s deep-rooted attachment to the property. William reflects on his parents’ unyielding farm, and the blight it had been on their lives. ‘It had never occurred to him to be proud of his little farm back home. How could you be proud of a square mile of dirt?’
The tour also proves to be something of a history lesson. John McIvor tells William fascinating stories about the region, including some relating to the Indigenous inhabitants. John McIvor claims to hold no prejudice against these people, but he is unwavering in the view that he owns this land, and that it will always be his because he knows it best:
You’d think there would be nothing left of what used to be here before they came. But I’ve walked this property from one end to the other, year after year. And there are still places where I don’t think a foot has set down apart from my own. Places where nothing has changed. But you need the eyes for it. You have to be able to see. Not everyone can.
After William is taken to a secret waterhole in a remote corner of the property (which is later revealed as a site of a terrible atrocity), his uncle’s intentions are better elucidated: he seeks William’s trust, but he also wants to know if he believes in the ownership of land in the same way he does. Only then can he consider leaving Kuran Station to William. ‘Possession,’ according to John McIvor, ‘was meaningless if it wasn’t absolute’, and this mantra comes to haunt every character in the novel.
The White Earth is a sweeping gothic drama. The narrative moves back and forth in time (from the present, in 1992, and back to the early 1920s), brilliantly weaving William’s contemporary storyline with John McIvor’s early life and experiences in his quest to regain Kuran Station.
John grew up on the station, not as the owner but as an employee of the White family, a dynasty of sheep barons known as the ‘Pure Merinos’. John’s father, Daniel, was the loyal and hard-working station manager who believed that John would eventually marry Edward White’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, thus altering the fortunes of the McIvor family forever.
When Edward White dies, however, his feckless, alcoholic son takes over the estate, and within a few years he has succumbed to illness too. By now John is seventeen years old, almost a man – and Kuran Station is within his grasp.
But Elizabeth White has grown into a headstrong young woman with no intention of honouring the unofficial agreement between the two families. Instead she decides to sell Kuran Station, which leaves both Daniel and John McIvor without jobs and destitute.
After his father has fallen into violent alcoholism, John leaves his family and the region. But as the years go by, his yearning for Kuran Station never dwindles, despite his determination to forge a new life for himself. And when, by chance, he once again visits the property, and the secret waterhole, it fatefully ‘awakened some dormant part of his soul’.
Buying Kuran Station becomes something of a Faustian pact for John McIvor, and his Mephistopheles is represented in the man on fire who inhabits his nightmares – ‘The burning man was his reminder of things lost, and his accuser of things done.’ Sadly, the quest for ‘absolute’ possession also comes at the expense of his relationship to his young wife and his beloved daughter, Ruth.
John McIvor’s attitudes towards ownership and inheritance come to colour every aspect of his life. He even establishes a grassroots political party called the Australian Independence League, a One Nation-style group that seeks a mono-social and mono-cultural nation that has quasi-seceded from Australia – a country that, it believes, is undermined by the liberal advances in lands rights for Indigenous Australians. As John complains of native title:
It tries to make criminals out of honest people who have worked hard for their land, it tries to say that we stole this country, when it fact we earned it. The new laws will tie us up in a sentimental mishmash of impossible rules that pretend history never happened, that somehow we’re back to where we were two hundred years ago.
All this, of course, is played out with painful, bitter irony. John McIvor is blinded to his own hypocrisy – through his long-held perception that Kuran Station was originally stolen from him, he is unable to see that he is repeating these same crimes against the Indigenous people, by denying them access to parts of the property that have cultural and historical significance to them.
However, the notion of inheritance in The White Earth extends beyond land and property: the novel examines, most profoundly, the residual psychic stains of the past on contemporary and future generations. It is this thread that makes The White Earth such a necessary political novel. It remains a story of urgent relevance to readers of all ages because the social and cultural issues it depicts are just as relevant now as they were nearly twenty-five years ago.
For William, this inherited disturbance, and the transfer of guilt, manifests in illness – in literal decay. Throughout the novel he is afflicted by a debilitating inner-ear infection, and because it has gone undiagnosed, his eardrum has begun to rot.
Such is the malaise that continues to make sick contemporary Australia. Of course it has been diagnosed, although some politicians in more recent years have sought to offer other remedies to this illness: xenophobia, prejudice, fear, hatred.
Like the fate of politics of today in Australia, The White Earth concludes with William – the future generation – left to decide which course his history will take. He has become something of a cipher, used by McGahan as a screen onto which many vital questions can be projected – such as, for how long do we carry the sins of our ancestors? And it is John McIvor’s instruction to his nephew that echoes long after the end of The White Earth:
That’s the sort of thing you have to know about a piece of land, Will, if you’re going to own it. You have to know where it fits… Every stretch of earth has it’s own story. You have to listen, and understand how it connects with other stories. Stories that involve the whole country in the end.
This is a reminder not only for William but for the reader – how we must all weave together the stories from our history to better understand the past, and how it has in turn shaped us, to ensure that some tales are never repeated.
References and further reading
Clendinnin I 2006, ‘The history question: Who owns the past?’, Quarterly
Kill Your Darlings 2012, ‘Conversation with Andrew McGahan’ Kill Your Darlings https://www.killyourdarlings.com.au/article/in-conversation-andrew-mcg/