Tara June Winch
HarperVia, June 2020
343 pages, $27.99
Sometimes a book speaks to you so powerfully that you feel compelled to tell everyone about it. And on rare occasions a book is so timely and necessary that you want to give everyone you know a copy and insist that they drop everything and read it NOW. The Yield is such a book.
Tara June Winch is an Australian who belongs to the Wiradjuri people of central New South Wales. The Yield received Australia’s highest accolade, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, as well as the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, Book of the Year at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, and the People’s Choice award (for which she received a total of $190,000 Australian).
Weaving together three narrative strands, Winch tells the heartbreaking story of the attempted genocide of Aboriginal Australians, first by British colonizers and then by Australians in the 20th century, followed by government policies and a national culture that has marginalized Indigenous people (and continues to do so).
Read Her Like an Open Book has moved to Substack. This account will become inactive on April 30. Please visit the new home at billwolfe.substack.com.
In alternating chapters, we encounter a multi-part letter written in 1915 by a clergyman describing the horrifying treatment of the Wiradjuri people by white people who claim to be Christians; a dictionary of the Wiradjuri language written in the early 21st century by an elder of the Wiradjuri community hoping to save their dying language and culture; and the story of his granddaughter’s return to the family property after 10 years in London. Reverend Greenleaf’s letter describes the crimes of early settlers against Aboriginal people: land grabs, murder, rape, and slavery. It is the story of Australia writ small.
The heart of The Yield concerns August Gondiwindi, who is living in self-imposed exile in England when she learns that her grandfather Albert, who raised her, has died. Twenty years after her sister Jedda’s disappearance when she was 10, August returns to the western New South Wales farming town of Massacre Plains for Poppy Albert’s funeral. In doing so, she is forced to confront the consequences of the racism and poverty of her childhood, complicated relationships with her extended family, and the oppressive cultural and economic limitations of rural Australia. To say it is a bittersweet homecoming is an understatement. August has been running from the loss of her sister, abandonment by her drug-addicted mother, and her resulting inability to live comfortably in her own skin.
August soon learns that a huge mining company has purchased the land on which her family lived. The land technically belonged to the government, which had leased it out for generations to the wealthy farming family who lived up the hill from the humble Prosperous House, where Albert and Elsie Gondiwindi had raised their children and grandchildren, and which served as the clan’s home base. The land is not considered historically or culturally significant, so nothing can be done to stop Rinepalm Mining from digging a two-kilometer, 300-meter-deep tin mine on the property.
The mostly white residents of Massacre Plains are desperate for the jobs and improved amenities the mine will bring, and they care little about the destruction of Prosperous Home outside of town. The Wiradjuri people have mostly died out, taking their culture with them. Albert Gondiwindi’s dictionary of the Wiradjuri language defines the words for key concepts in his people’s worldview. His entries blend personal experience, history, and culture, presenting a collage-like story of the Wiradjuri.
Taken together, the three strands of The Yield depict the unrelenting theft of land and resources from the First Nations people of Australia, starting with the arrival of the “First Fleet” in 1788 and continuing for more than two centuries up to the events of this story.
August was close to her grandfather, and her homecoming has reconnected her to the land. His loss and the discovery that he was working on a book — which she cannot find anywhere — inspire her to try to save Prosperous House for her grandmother and relatives. But how do you stop a huge corporation operating with the government’s support? August needs to find a way to prove that the land is significant and should be protected. That is the compelling central conflict of the contemporary plotline.
Winch’s writing alternates lyricism with a propulsive plot. This paragraph in particular moved me.
“August had always thought important events happened in every other country except for Australia. That the tremors of their small lives meant nothing. But at that moment, on a train going to the deep past and the place she knew best, she felt as if she’d awoken from a stony sleep to find herself standing on the edge of something larger than she’d ever been able to see before. After digesting all those schoolbook lies, after reading the Reverend’s letter, after walking the aisles of the museum, she knew that her life wasn’t like before. There was an expanse behind her; their lives meant something, their lives were huge. Thousands of years, she thought to herself. Slipped through the fingers of careless people. That’s what homogenized Massacre thought, that they were a careless people . . . Other people didn’t have lumps in their throat year in and year out, century after century. They didn’t know what it was like to be torn apart.”
The Yield is a must read, whether you’ve read many books about Indigenous Australians or are unfamiliar with the subject. The issues depicted in The Yield are both particularly Australian and sadly universal. It’s a book I wish I’d read sooner and one that continues to resonate.