Gemmy had an unspeakably awful childhood in Britain and in the 1840s was cast ashore from a shipwreck off the coast of Australia at age 13. The aborigines took him in and it is 16 years later that three children in a very remote settlement in Queensland came across him. Such a strange creature creates great fear and mistrust, as the isolated settlers are terrified by the rarely seen aboriginal population. The family whose children found him take him in and though the father is always made uncomfortable by Gemmy, he finds his neighbors' fears separates him from his friends.
One day three blacks came to visit Gemmy while he was working; they were concerned that among the "ghostly white creatures, he might have slipped back into the thinner world of wraiths and demons that he had escaped, though never completely, in his days with them. They had come to reclaim him; but lightly, bringing what would feed his spirit." This short visit is observed by a particularly hysterical member of the settlement and reported to others. Eventually the community nearly kills Gemmy and the women of the community take the problem in hand and place Gemmy under the protection of the oddest person of the settlement, Mrs. Hutchence, an old woman with enough money to have an actual house and enough will to overwhelm any man in the settlement.
She had learned about bee keeping from the aboriginal population and teaches what she knows to Janet, the oldest of the children who found Gemmy. One day the swarm landed on Janet, completely covering her body. She remained absolutely calm, having learned from Mrs. Hutchence not to be afraid of them, and they flew off without harming her. At this point Mrs. Hutchence is filled with terror, not having the faith that Janet had; Janet understands it was her faith that saved her. Bees became her life work and she learned much more about them than Mrs. Hutchence dreamed of.
The person most connected to Gemmy is Mr. Frazer, the minister, who makes meticulous drawings and descriptions of the plants he comes across on walks in the bush with Gemmy. Mr. Frazer's drawings have an almost mystical significance for Gemmy and convince him that Mr. Frazer has grasped the spirit of what Gemmy has shown him. In his more reflective writings Mr. Frazer says
We have been wrong to see this continent as hostile and infelicitous, so that only by the fiercest stoicism, a supreme resolution and force of will, and by felling, clearing, sowing with the seeds we have brought with us, and by importing sheep, cattle, rabbits, and even the very birds of the air, can it be shaped and made habitable. It is habitable already.
One character, the very young and odd schoolmaster, makes a very touching transition from his original feeling of repulsion toward Gemmy to realizing that Mr. Frazer might be right, that Gemmy was closer to them than he knew. This realization comes when he has taken an action that has the effect of releasing Gemmy from the hold the settlement has on him so that he can return to his life with the aborigines.
The book ends with a chapter set 50 years later featuring two of the children who found Gemmy who acknowledge the profound effect that Gemmy had on them throughout their lives.
Although its themes are universal, this seems as much an Australian novel as one could imagine.