four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
21-Mar-Apr-2006
user_rating: 
0

A-TheWhiteEarthWhen nine-year-old William’s father dies in a blaze that consumes his wheat farm in Queensland, William and his mother flee to his great-uncle John McIvor’s dilapidated mansion, Kuran House, on an old sheep ranch. John, a bitter old man obsessed with putting the estate back together, sees a future heir in Will. Though sickly, William aids his great-uncle and his right-wing political party, which opposes laws that would return land to the Aborigines. "They must never take the land from me," insists John. But dark family secrets, ghosts from the past, and the bloody sins of colonialism haunt Will, and his life becomes more nightmarish at every turn.
Soho Press. 376 pages. $25. ISBN: 1569474176

Antipodes 4 of 5 Stars
"While William doesn’t have the insights of Lee’s Scout Finch or the wide-eyed ignorance of Dickens’s Pip, he is believably befuddled by most of the adults in his life. … By blending social-political commentary, familial drama, and aboriginal mysticism in a setting as superbly rendered as McGahan’s Kuran Plains are, The White Earth offers more than just a compelling story." A. Digger Stolz

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"It is with an enviable and effortless touch that Andrew McGahan unveils the tale of the fictional McIvor family—a band of farmers, murderers, gimlet-eyed lusters, and not-so-secret haters of aborigines—who ripped through rural Australia in the 20th century. And while The White Earth bears all the hallmarks of a neo-Dickensian novel … a lot more is going on in McGahan’s latest than simple homage." Daniel Fierman

Hartford Courant 4 of 5 Stars
"Australian novelist Andrew McGahan clearly has read a great deal of Charles Dickens, and he has used many of that author’s tactics in his new novel, The White Earth. … But unlike Dickens, McGahan keeps his epic tale as taut as possible." Phil Hall

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"While McIvor begins as a mere outline, there is a pleasing surprise: Chapters plunge into his past and fill in the personal history of this distinctly tragic figure. … McGahan scrutinizes his characters without puppetry, and his prose moves with grace, smoothness and a gift for setting." Shwan Ziad

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The novel is also a gothic tale of shadowy passageways and locked rooms, complete with a suspicious old housekeeper who would just as soon send Will on his way. … And through it all the plot drives forward as unstoppably as the wildfire that sweeps across the expanse of drought-withered farmland." Richard Wakefield

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Although we’re on William’s side, he isn’t especially likable. … [McGahan’s] fictional universe is devoid of a great many things; lightness of touch, irony and the slightest hint of humor being among them." Geoff Nicholson

Critical Summary

Critics describe The White Earth as a neo-Dickensian novel, replete with layered stories, flashbacks, crumbling mansions, family secrets, strange deaths, ghosts, deception, and even a suspicious old housekeeper. Yet they agree that the Australia Will inhabits is far darker than any world Dickens ever depicted. The heart of the novel is a tragic chapter in Australian history: the relocation and genocide of the Aborigines. Though the characters serve as mouthpieces for differing views on the question of land rights, their beliefs, conflicts, and relationships ring true. Some purple prose and the hefty moral weight of the novel bogged down only one reviewer; the rest saw The White Earth as an important, haunting lesson.