The novel is broken into three different narratives. Narratives that change in time but not geography. All the arcs revolve around the Prosperous Mission that was built in Massacre Plains for the indigenous population by Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf in the late nineteenth century. Massacre Plains, an apt name considering the bloodshed that was spilled in the name of colonization. Greenleaf’s chapters take an epistolary form. Greenleaf’s intentions are good, and he has what he believes are the aboriginal’s best interests at heart. However, by the end of the book he realizes what a terrible error in judgement he has made, in pushing his belief system onto a different culture. He even comes to question his own.
The bulk of the story takes place in the present and is narrated by August Gondiwindi. August walked out of school mid-term in the eighth grade never to return. Her friends, who thought she was a freak, enforced the rumor that she had run away to join the circus, but she had in fact travelled all the way to London. With August running away at such a young age, her childhood is lost, her culture never developed. August has never felt complete, never felt a part of anything,
“Maybe I just feel weird, I don’t know. Stuff changes. I feel as if I am just floating through life or something. Like my whole life I haven’t really been me.”
August returns to Massacre Plains when her beloved Pop Albert passes away and his part is the third part in the connecting storylines. This is my favorite part. Pop Albert’s chapters are written in the form of a dictionary of the Wiradjuri language that he was working on before he died. Along with definitions, the reader is treated to anecdotes, customs and creation stories that are a delight to read. It also tells the story, and fate of August’s sister Jedda, who went missing when they were young girls. August constantly refers to Jedda, recalling memories of the two of them. Her loss, a loss that devastated the Gondiwindi family
The theme of land rights is explored in August’s narrative. Upon returning for her Pop’s funeral, August learns that her Nan is going to lose Prosperous to a mining company who are going to dig up the land for a tin mine. Tara June Winch reminds the reader of the many crimes that colonial powers have inflicted on indigenous populations throughout history. Crimes that we are only starting to admit and atone for now. Apologizing and recognition a step towards reconciliation.
Another theme is the loss of language and the vital importance of retaining and preserving these languages that are perhaps more important than physical artifacts. Especially for identity and sense of belonging for tribal members. Many languages around the world have already been lost, and numerous Australian indigenous languages are listed as endangered. When they are lost, they are lost forever.
This is a wonderful novel which thoroughly deserved the 2020 Miles Franklin Award.
Tara June Winch is an Australian (Wiradjuri) author. Her first novel, Swallow the Air won several literary awards. In 2008, she was mentored by Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka as part of the prestigious Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. After The Carnage, her second book was published in 2016 to critical acclaim. Her third, The Yield, was first published in 2019, to commercial and critical success and took out three prizes including Book of the Year at the NSW Premier's Literary Awards, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Voss Prize, and the Prime Minister's Literary Award. She resides in France with her family.