The enthusiastic response that I have seen to this book is wholly warranted. Its structure is unique and impressive, the tale it tells is engaging, and it relies on clear factual foundations. The story unfolds through three voices.
One is the story of August, a modern-day Wiradjuri woman who after 10 years in the UK, returned to New South Wales on the occasion of her grandfather’s death to find she must remain there to save the Gondiwindi land. The second is a dictionary of Wiradjuri words written by her grandfather Albert Gondiwindi, words that move the story forward. The third is a letter written in 1915 by a missionary, the Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf who had arrived in New South Wales from Germany as a child in 1844. His letter is a late-in-life review of the good and ill that came from his effort to help and protect the native population by creating the mission where the Gondiwindis lived.
When August arrives, she finds that her grandmother must leave the house and property within a week as a tin mining company prepares to dig. The family is resigned to this and some in the community look forward to employment at the mine. To prevent the mine company from taking over, Native Title needs to be established, a project her grandfather had been working on. August continues to mourn the loss of her sister Jedda who disappeared when they were young. The help of a librarian was instrumental in the efforts by both August and her grandfather. Both the dictionary and the letter from Reverend Greenleaf were key in this endeavor.
Here are a couple of words from Albert’s dictionary:
mailman, messenger (with a message stick)–dharrang-dharrang Julie at the local library–a wise and kind woman–unearthed pieces of my puzzle in the library catalog that I wouldn’t have found otherwise, she gave them to me like a message stick from long ago. Those things she showed me helped me compile my dictionary, helped me put together the picture properly. Julie was my dharrang-dharrang.
marks or tracks, impressions of passing objects–murru This is the tracks the snakes, the goanna, the birds, and us make as we crisscross the world. We all leave murru behind, so leave a gentle one.
medicine man, priest, conjurer–guradyi, gush, guraadyi That’s when the gudyi comes in from the church and tries to fix everything for the families. There was only one good white gudyi I’ve read of and that was Greenleaf, more or less.
Rev. Greenleaf’s 1915 letter is a recitation of bad actions by local people who were united only in their hatred of the residents of the mission. And then there were the unkept promises of help from the government for education. His efforts to remake the residents did not protect them from the horrors. He traveled to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with needle work and other crafts by the residents; he had successfully resisted the request for “plaster casts of the skull of three Aborigines” that were to “prove cognitive development of savages.” He returned with hope for funding but as he says, “It was, in looking back, but a blinding hope in me to ignore what I had seen and hope for what I had not.” The town was not called Massacre Plains for nothing.
I will say the book ends on a hopeful and positive note and the journey there was wonderful for its artistry.
Tara June Winch, The Yield, HarperVia, 2020, 352 pages (I read the kindle version). Available from the public library.