The story begins with the death of young William's father in sudden and tragic circumstances, leaving he and his mother facing financial destitution. His uncle, John McIvor, offers them a place to live in his property Kurran Downs, but it soon becomes apparent that this offer is not without strings.
John McIvor hopes that William will prove himself capable of becoming John's heir and the next owner of Kurran Downs, and John is willing to go to any lengths to make William prove himself with this goal in mind. Before it can happen, John needs William to understand the significance of the relationship between Kurran Downs and the land on which it sits.
I call The White Earth an ambitious novel because in it McGahan raises many important political issues. Native title and the Mabo decision place an important role to the story, as does the discontentedness (is that a word?) of the rural Australian population with the Keating government. More broadly the issue of identity and how identity is connected to the land from which you come is an important theme in the story.McGahan also explores racism and the complexities of human feeling that motivate it.
The story itself switches between William and John McIvor's perspective and it is through this narrative technique that not only the characters, but the history of the land is revealed.
I admire McGahan for the ideas behind The White Earth and for tackling such controversial issues - I found this book immensely thought provoking because of it.
Having said that, I expected more from The White Earth after having read so many magnificent reviews of it. I think at times the political discussion dominated the story, to the story's detriment. I also thought that the story suffered for its sentimentality. The book felt very cliched at times, particularly the image of William arriving for the first time at Kurran Downs. It felt almost as though the book was written for a movie rather than for a story alone.
It was a book with good ideas and intentions, that just fell a little flat for me.