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Shadow of the land

One family's desire for an outback estate collides with Aboriginal claims in The White Earth

The White Earth
By Andrew McGahan
Soho, 376 pp., $25

Andrew McGahan's fourth, much-heralded novel is haunted by people claiming their home in a stunning, sinister landscape. ''The White Earth," a multigenerational story set in Queensland's outback, navigates the fraught lines between settling and trespassing. Named book of the year by the Age and the Courier Mail, the novel also won Australia's prestigious Miles Franklin Prize in 2005.

One spring day in 1992, 8-year-old Will loses everything when his father's harvester catches fire in a 70-acre paddock of wheat. ''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 behind." Soon a strange old man, Great-Uncle John McIvor, appears and invites Will and his prescription-drug-addicted mother, Veronica, to live with him up at Kuran Station.

Kuran Station, pastoral estate of the White family since the 1820s, has deteriorated by the 1990s into arid, unproductive terrain. The once-elegant mansion is a crumbling house with precarious floorboards. Still, Kuran's past and future sing vividly in the fierce imagination of Uncle John, the foreman's son, who grew up expecting to inherit it. John's journey to ownership takes 40 tortuous years. His embrace of this land doggedly disavows Aboriginal history and current indigenous claims. Postcolonial tensions hum like raw nerves throughout the 376 pages of ''The White Earth."

Will is an innocent but smart kid who mourns his father, copes with his emotionally absent mother, strives to please curmudgeonly Uncle John, and steers clear of the bitter old housekeeper, Mrs. Griffith, who believes Kuran belongs to her. Gradually Will learns he has been given refuge because Uncle John wants to assess him as a possible heir. ''The truth is, land has to belong to someone to really come alive. . . . And when I die, I won't be leaving a hole in a cemetery or my name on a gravestone. This is what I'll be leaving."

Although the old man has grown racist, sexist, and jingoist clinging to antediluvian notions of entitlement, McGahan elicits sympathy for him by juxtaposing chapters about young Will and chapters about young John growing up with his thuggish father and silent mother. Viewing John's attachment to Kuran through wide childhood eyes, he seems, at first, less culpable, less of an interloper. ''He loved the wide golden spread of the plains, and the hills that swept up smoothly in the east. He loved the herds of cattle and the mobs of sheep straying lazily in front of his horse. He loved the days spent working out amongst the men under the open sky, or camping with them at night, beneath an arch of faultlessly clear stars. He loved the fury of the shearing shed and the way the wool bales piled up, great square blocks of prosperity. Most of all, he loved Kuran House. So solid and secure and rooted in the earth."

John's dream -- indeed birthright, according to his headstrong father -- is to marry Elizabeth White and become master of Kuran Station. ''The thought filled him with pride, and as a boy he learnt every inch of the run, every corner and crest, from far out on the plains to high up in the hills." When the Whites abruptly sell the land, John's stunned family spirals into poverty. After several years, he finds work as a logger in nearby mountains. Eventually, he begins a promising new life with beautiful, vivacious Harriet. Yet he continues to feverishly pursue Kuran Station. His inherited bloody-mindedness finally alienates Harriet and Ruth, their only child.

''The White Earth" is enhanced by lessons in antipodean history, from Aboriginal times to the invasion by aristocratic Englishmen and their (largely Celtic and convict) laboring classes to the rise of the ''self-made" Australians like John, who regard themselves as colonizers rather than colonized. John resists not only Aboriginal rights, but progress made by recent immigrants. He is founder and prime mover in the ''Australian Independence League," which proudly flies a blue-and-white flag designed by 19th-century miners demanding a republic. He convenes a rally on his land against native title legislation, recruiting a naïve, eager Will to help.

McGahan's principal character is the countryside -- remembered, imagined, always powerful. Striking description of contested landscape is the heart of this novel. McGahan comes from rural Queensland, and his familiarity with the Darling Downs is clear in his passionate evocation of the perils and pleasures of Kuran Station. ''The banks of the gullies grew more precipitous, the scrub within them more dense and forbidding. Now they were passing into an altogether wilder, darker country."

Sometime later, Will comprehends the land in a completely different mood when Uncle John dispatches him on walkabout to a remote waterhole. ''The hills were pitch black. . . . Inky blots of darkness warned of trees, or a shadow would loom sharply and he would flinch away, only to look again and find nothing there. . . . Nothing."

The human characters are engaging, annoying, idiosyncratic. John is a romantic victim, thwarted by class and history as well as a personification of the greedy, vulgar empire. Will grows more canny about contradictions in his uncle's generosity, yet he, too, is hobbled by material and temporal circumstance. ''The White Earth" raises compelling quandaries about how and why and whether land belongs to people or vice versa. The plot sizzles with immediate predicament: Will the Independence League succeed? If not, can Will and his mother survive? Why are both uncle and nephew haunted by the image of a burning man? This novel begins and ends in smoke. Fire becomes both a metaphor and a dramatic climax. The book is absorbing, disturbing, almost gothic, by turns, as McGahan depicts the inextricability of family and the primal hunger for finding and naming home.

Novelist Valerie Miner is the author of 12 books. She teaches at Stanford University.

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