A fictionalised location within the vast farming region of the Darling Downs in southeast Queensland is the setting of Andrew McGahan’s 2005 Miles Franklin award-winning novel, The White Earth.
Opening in 1992, drought has decimated landscape, crops and livestock alike. Farmers struggle to make ends meet on once fertile plains. The death of eight year-old William’s father in an accident on their farm leaves him and his mother destitute – until unknown great-uncle John McIvor appears on the scene.
McIvor lives in the decrepit Kuran House, the original station house of the area. From its vantage point in the foothills of the Bunyas, the Whites, a wealthy and powerful family of land squatters, ruled over a huge tract of land in the 19th and early years of the 20th centuries.
But the White family has long gone, the station lands broken up into smaller holdings and the house itself fallen into almost uninhabitable condition. The son of the former station manager, McIvor had spent a lifetime gaining ownership of what was left of the extensive property, sacrificing his marriage and family life in the process.
Into this move William and his neurasthenic and wholly dysfunctional mother, who sees an opportunity in securing the inheritance of the property through her son.
Settlement, land ownership and politics
McIvor himself, bitter and deeply cynical, is desperately looking for an heir who will carry on running what is left of Kuran. He puts Will through a series of ‘tests’ to check the mettle of the boy. He also indoctrinates the eight year-old with reactionary One Nation politics: the federal government is debating true ownership of land squatted by white settlers in the 19th century and the forced removal of the indigenous population. McIvor is anything but happy about such discussion.
Novelist McGahan deftly weaves the history of Kuran since white settlement with the contemporary storyline of a young boy who struggles to understand all that is expected from him in the adult world.
Corruption, murder and violence twist and turn the narrative through the grab for land in the middle 19th century to contemporary Queensland and Australian politics of the day. Skewed perspectives, selfish intent, brooding jealousies, hidden secrets, political machinations all combine in an intense narrative that crashes and burns towards an inevitable climax.
And pervading the darker recesses of the drought-stricken property is an ethereal spirit, one of malice and revenge. McIvor, with no sense of irony, talks of his own spiritual connection with the land whilst refusing to recognise the claim by displaced indigenous survivors of its history, its importance to them. It’s Will, lost and delirious after three days without water, who experiences the hallucinatory visions of demons and horrors of the mythical yet allegorical bunyip. His discovery of human bones in the dried-up waterhole finally reveals a terrible truth of 70 years before.
The White Earth is a powerful, sweeping story of history and land, of the people who settle it, farm it, own it, kill for it, run away from it. Few understand it, yet it is the land that shapes their lives.
But it is also an allegory of Australia, of first settlement and the grab for land. Not understanding the nature of its nomadic inhabitants or the land itself, the European concept of fences and ownership took precedence over any claims by ‘savages’.
The White Earth is not an agit-prop linear narrative based purely on the real. Instead, it weaves in and out of history, from a 1920s society party to a One Nation political rally, from a younger taciturn John McIvor working the farm to the more ethereal captured moments of dreamlike events of both past and present.