I was one of the hundreds who gathered last weekend at Carina Bowls Club in Brisbane to celebrate the life of Andrew McGahan, the great Australian novelist, gone too soon at fifty-two from cancer, who changed the work and lives of so many others.
I read The White Earth, McGahan’s fourth novel (they’re all good), when it was first published in 2004. Andrew was younger than me and so much more courageous in his work. We shared the same publisher at Allen and Unwin and the same agent at Curtis Brown, and he’d won the Vogel two years before I was runner-up. I read everything he wrote.
The White Earth tells a big, bold story that has you bolted to the page from start to finish. An old man, eaten out by greed and regret, is trying to regain land he lost, his birthright as he sees it. The story is seen through the eyes of his eight-year-old nephew William, come to live with him after the tragedy that took William’s father, his mother lost in her own demons. The once grand Kuran homestead is crumbling around William’s uncle, and William begins to understand that something has happened on that land, something terrible.
I lovedThe White Earth as a cracking good read, a saga in its sweep, gothic in style, but more recently I’ve begun to see more. In the way a novel can, The White Earth offers something true about our history, our relationship with Australia’s indigenous peoples, our terrible human nature.
In a week in which we have been all too quick to pile righteous anger on Cardinal George Pell for crimes he committed against children, the Guardian has started to unpack the crimes our European ancestors committed against the indigenous peoples of Australia. Guardian journalists have show the leadership our leaders haven’t and set out on the journey of truth-telling we will need in order to go forward with lighter hearts, recognising history for what it was. There is a map, thoughtfully developed, that shows the known killings of Aboriginal men, women and children by Europeans, from the 1700s into the 20th century. It is shocking to see the totality, and nothing like what you learned at school. If you look at this map and read Bruce Pascoe’s outstanding work Dark Emu—which tells another set of truths about what was here when Europeans came—you can no longer not see. You just can’t.
I have thought of The White Earth often in the years since I first read it, years I came to the music of Gurrumul, years I had come to terms with my own crimes against humanity, years I had started to piece together something altogether different from whatever I had learned in school about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Like all of Andrew McGahan’s work, The White Earth has a fearlessness I am not capable of. He was fearless as a writer.
If there is light in the Guardian’s project it’s that so many non-indigenous Australians are willing to recognise the past and tell painful true stories and express sorrow now. We want to make amends and that is a good place to start, our better selves. We want change.
Did Andrew McGahan know all this in 2004? Perhaps he did. Certainly, The White Earth does. I am looking forward to re-reading it, and all of Andrew McGahan’s novels, to mark his passing. I went along to his memorial to give thanks for his work, and his writing life, which changed me. The love his family and friends felt for him was in every word spoken and every tear and cracked voice. The world has lost a giant, and Andrew McGahan’s folk have lost much more.
The White Earth had that special gift that some novels give, the capacity to increase our understanding of others that might make us bigger and better people. It matters now more than ever. Perhaps it’s even the central project of our humanity.