THE GREAT PLAINS
Author: Nicole Alexander
Bantam Australia RRP $32.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
A powerful love of the land shines throughout Nicole Alexander’s latest family saga, The Great Plains. This is the first novel I’ve read by the novelist described as the ‘heart of Australian storytelling’, and it won’t be my last. On the surface the premise is simple: three generations of Wade men are captivated by three generations of mixed-blood Wade women; at its essence, messages about protecting and honouring the earth, connection to landscape, cultural differences and belonging create depth.
The novel traces the Wade family’s journey from the American Wild West to outback Queensland, from the Civil War to the Great Depression, from unity to division. It opens in Dallas, where the family is experiencing the good fortune of a thriving newspaper and retail business, but is shaken by the discovery of a long-lost relative who was captured by Indians 23 years earlier. The patriarch, Aloysius, is overjoyed by the return of Philomena, his dead brother’s daughter; his wife is not so happy, especially when it is revealed that Philomena has a teenage daughter who is pregnant. With their social standing at risk, the family must decide what to do. Aloysius wants to free Philomena from the Indians, but in doing that, will Philomena lose her freedom? Does Philomena have any say in the matter? Over the years, Philomena’s grand-daughter Serena and great-grand-daughter Abelena will each be forced to choose between freedom and being part of a wealthy family. Either way, the price is high.
‘Tobias thinks that by bringing me here he will change me, like his father wanted to change me.’ (Abalena, p414)
Rich and complex, The Great Plains highlights an interesting and sad dilemma – that of people who by birth belong to two cultures, but in practice belong to neither. In Philomena’s case, she was “adopted” into another culture, the Apache Indians, and was unable and unwilling to accept the restrictions of the white world. Her descendants, being of mixed blood, were seen as outcasts by both whites and Apache, and even so, they could not escape the fight within them, an inner battle of cultural truths. Their situation is mirrored in cultures worldwide. Alexander does a terrific job highlighting the social and historical realities, but also, the depth of connection to culture and land, both in America and Australia. I loved this passage:
‘You must tell Abalena to accept the Apache within her. Until she does she will remain angry with our people. She hides it well but her heart cries out to belong. The white part of her fights an Indian heart, but she will never win. We are too strong …’ (Uncle George, p289)
Thematically, The Great Plains has much to offer, from freedom to obsession, from family ties to land ties, from poverty to wealth. Overriding it all is control – control of the land (as in ownership, use and misuse), control of wealth, control of people (women, Indians and Aborigines) and control of freedom (including of spirit). Underneath is the lingering question – what is freedom? Who defines this? The gentle reminder is that freedom for one, may be prison for another.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It gave me a lot to think about, as well as delivering a ripping good yarn. Alexander writes with heart as much as storytelling talent, and she paints a picture of the great plains of America and Australia that is vivid and layered.
Available from good bookstores and Random House Australia. My copy was courtesy of Random House Australia.
Bookish treat: Damper, cooked over the coals of a dying fire, and served with butter and honey. An outback treat I will never forget.