It was Kim’s recommendation in Reading Matters that took me to this book set in the mid-1980s in the Wheatbelt of Western Australia north of Perth. The town of Geraldton that is mentioned in Tim Winton’s great work Cloudstreet is nearby.
The narrator is Rowen, the younger son of wheat farmer Bryce and his wife Justine. Rowen left the farm as soon as he could and as the story begins, he is riding along with Perth Police, looking for a story for the newspaper. His older brother Albert loved the farm life but had died a few years before. Bryce was fading into dementia and Justine had decided to sell the farm after this last harvest. She asked Rowen for his help in this hellish undertaking.
The ethos of the farm community was on full display, both its destructive aspects and the impressive ability to work around or through huge obstacles. On the negative side, selling the farm was viewed as admitting failure, giving up, despite the fact that the father needed constant care. The harvest time itself sounded brutal; it seemed to be conducted as if you had to gather every single grain to be able to sell the crop at all. Inventiveness in overcoming major obstacles was on display when the power was out after Albert’s funeral. A gathering at the pub was vital to the community, so Bryce backed his ute close to the pub, hooked it up, and voilà, the needed electricity was available.
The author makes the point that farming the land is robbing it of its vitality. A salt lake comes into the story when Rowen drove across it after a rainstorm and the ute became permanently stuck. The trees had been cut down to make the land farmable. With no trees to keep the water table down, salt came to the surface and the land was useless for farming.
Bryce has one of those moments of rationality when he visits a giant granite outcrop on a nearby farm that reminds him of the land as it used to be. Rowen says, “Up close to the rock I could feel its heat, all that sunshine trapped in this deep sleeping density….” The father recalls that Aborigines whose land they had taken for farms were forced out of the area. Later the father says, “If I had my way I’d let it all go fallow. Let the bush reclaim it. We have no business being here.”
Justine decided to sell the land to a university so that it could be a research facility. Half the farm would be rehabilitated to be bush-like, making the dry creek run, bringing back birds and animals to investigate methods to keep the salinity down. The other half would be farmed to test new grains and other research. This idea was considered a terrible betrayal, but Justine’s toughness stood her in good stead. A happy ending for land conservation.
Other matters are explored, including the complications of family connections, being the family member who wants to strike out in another direction, coping with dementia and end of life.
David Allan-Petale, Locust Summer, Fremantle Press, 2021, 240 pages (I read the kindle version). Not available in the public library.