Repressed Histories

By Cornell, Christen | Cultural Studies Review, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Repressed Histories


Cornell, Christen, Cultural Studies Review


repressed histories ANDREW MCGAHAN The White Earth Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2004 ISBN 1-7414-147-8 RRP $29.95 (pb)

At first glance, Andrew McGahan's most recent novel, The White Earth, might appear to be about Aboriginal people and culture. It is set on a farm on the Darling Downs during the drafting of Mabo legislation, and is about land rights, Native title and the history of Aboriginal massacres in that region. The White Earth, however, is remarkable precisely for its eschewing of this kind of discussion about Aboriginality, focusing exclusively on the impact of these events and issues upon white Australia rather than their constitution of an Aboriginal 'issue' or 'problem'. Speaking neither for nor about Aboriginal culture or people, the book dwells instead on the question of their place within the white psyche, their inevitable shaping and influence of a white culture that is preoccupied with their denial.

When William's father is killed in a fire, the young boy and his mother are invited to live with his great uncle John Mclvor in his decaying colonial mansion on the colossal Kuran Station. An expansive remnant of one of the area's first enormous cattle runs, Kuran Station was originally the estate of the White family, a once powerful local dynasty whose supremacy has long since dissolved, and whose descendents have now all moved on. One of the last remaining people to have known the estate in these glory years, and now its proud but aging owner, John Mclvor is on the lookout for an heir, somebody he can rely on to share his own conception of the land and defend it from the impending threat of a world gone mad for minority groups, from national parks and Native title.

Like a boy sent on walkabout, William is removed from school for a year in order to have his mettle tried and tested, to be taught and trained by his great uncle in the stories and wisdom of the estate. As the plot progresses, however, John McIvor's understanding and ownership of the country is shown to be contingent, reliant upon not only temporal colonial orthodoxies, but also the violence of his ancestors, personal vendettas, greed and fear. What begins as a seemingly natural and unquestionable understanding of self and the land gradually becomes prized from its position of authority, as John's daughter Ruth, a lawyer in Native title and repository of family knowledge, arrives with stories incommensurate with those of William's great uncle, and as the land starts to speak for itself.

For more than the first half of The White Earth, all terms, frameworks and assumptions remain limited to what William is taught by his uncle. This is one of a number of the book's 'unreliable narrators', voices that hold together with their own sense of logic and even compassion until an alternative arrives and casts doubts upon its integrity. This particular voice, one that many of us (over a certain age) would be familiar with from school, tells the history of the region exclusive of the knowledge and existence of Aboriginal people. The European explorer Kirchmeyer was 'one of the first people to cross this part of the country'; the black soil plains are bare of trees not because of the Aboriginal practice of burning, but because in drought, the ground can't support their roots; and of course, the arrival of Europeans was the first time the Kuran Plains were adapted, and so claimed, by human use.

John McIvor is at pains to establish that he is not racist and that he respects Aboriginal culture; but he insists that this is gone now, inevitably (if lamentably) dislodged by the agricultural might of the white man. Those who want to recognise Aboriginal conceptions of the land or, even more outlandishly, to argue for the acknowledgement of a continuing Aboriginal presence in Australia are only turning back the clock, trying to remove from farmers what they have earned over generations with bravery, determination and with their own respect and love of the land. …

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