Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 4, 2015

Earth (2001), by Bruce Pascoe

ilw 2015
As I wrote on my professional blog when reviewing his YA novel Fog a Dox on my LisaHillSchoolStuff blog, Bruce Pascoe, of Bunerong-Tasmanian heritage, is an award-winning indigenous author, editor and compiler of anthologies.  In addition to writing a number of novels and non-fiction books for adults, he has also published a Wathaurong dictionary to support the retrieval and teaching of the Wathaurong language in south-western Victoria.  Fog a Dox won the YA category in the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and last year I reviewed Pascoe’s remarkable story of indigenous agricultural practice, Dark Emu which IMO is destined to become an essential reference book for anyone wanting to know about how this country was farmed prior to European settlement.

EarthEarth (2001) is the fifth of Pascoe’s novels, which include Fox (1988); Shark (1999); Ruby-eyed Coucal (1996); Ribcage (1999) Ocean, (2002); Bloke (2009) and Fog a Dox (2012).  On the strength of this one, I’m now on the lookout for the others, some of which are still in print at Magabala Books.

Written entirely in dialogue from which the reader derives the characterisation, setting and plot, Earth tells a story from the Werribee district west of Melbourne in colonial 19th century Victoria.  (Allusion to the first Royal Visit to Australia by Prince Albert dates the ending as 1867).  Characters based on real life people include William Angliss and Sir Redmond Barry who have a conversation suggesting that bribing the Governor could be a way of countering the proposal to ‘allow the true titleholders free access to their tribal land’.  The strategy might also be supplemented by reviving talk about black insurrectionists (i.e. freedom fighters) and perhaps there could also be some interference in the investigation of the untimely deaths of the sheep killers on the Werribee’.  (p. 72) These characters needn’t have worried because the trial was a circus.  There was blatant flouting of the rules of evidence and flagrant dismissal of the prosecutor’s attempt to get justice for the three Aborigines who’d been summarily massacred by Officer McCallum for the theft of one sheep, Moorabool, Parnum and Mariwun.

One of the witnesses, Frank Palmer, is ambivalent about his Aboriginality and represents the struggle for identity that characterised the invidious position of indigenous people in this period.  Although he ‘passes for White’, he is  descended from King Billy, (a character who may have been be modelled on King Billy of Ballarat, a Wathaurong man who is briefly mentioned in a book called Black Gold: Aboriginal People on the Goldfields of Victoria, 1850-1870 by Fred Cahir.)  But Frank is initially very anxious when his grandson Alf tells him what he’s been told about his indigenous relations, because he fears the discrimination that will result.  Married to Claudie, a white woman with whom he has a loving and respectful relationship, Frank eventually has to confront his self-suppressed heritage when young Betty, raped by the local lout Eric Pearson, has her son taken away.  With Claudie’s reluctant support he takes on a quiet battle for custody of the baby.

But the more Frank does for his Aboriginal family, the more Claudie fears the descent back into the grinding poverty of her childhood.  A respected midwife in the town, she has been able to transcend the racist gossip about Frank’s heritage, but as Frank’s activities become more risky, she has good reason to fear ostracism and worse.  As the settlers seek to legitimise the dispossession of the indigenous people, they form a Loyal Society designed to exclude any non-whites, and to corral the remaining Aborigines into missions and reserves.  Frank’s rescue of an captured Aborigine in chains makes him liable to prosecution, and there would be no hope of a fair trial if his Aboriginality were established before a court…

A lament for what has been lost includes a reference to the Wirrun, the yellow-tailed black cockatoo which is declining in numbers due to fragmented habitat. (It’s been declared a vulnerable species in South Australia.)

‘Look him now.  All black that fella, jus’ like us, look ‘im now, look at yellow face, yellow tail, oh proper sorry that one now.  Like our people, travellin’ over country lookin’ for this one, that one.  Can’t find.  Proper sorry time.  Where our people gone?’ (p,109)

Well, they are around, he says, but they are drinking in despair, or unable to find a partner from among their own people, or hiding away from the ‘amerjee’ (white) people, reduced to stealing for their needs and hoping no one will notice.  Their crucial role in caring for country is at risk, as they are forced into working in menial labouring jobs that consign them to poverty:

‘That how it gunna be for our people? That how our warriors gunna live? Look that Moorabool crawlin’ in gunyah, hole in chest like rat’s mouth, how he gunna live eh? What good that? Who gunna go and speak to the country, eh? Who gunna speak for the river and the hills, the sea and the salt?  Who gunna speak for our salt, eh? Who gunna put the kurraiyn on his tongue and say, my mother, eh?  Who say that?  Build fence, hammer roof, sneak pennies, patch pants.  Little life that one, little.  (p. 109)

There is a glossary of the Wathaurong language, from the Ballarat, Geelong and Airey’s Inlet region, at the back of the book, but I found that most of the time I could guess the meaning, as in this excerpt you can guess that kurraiyn means salt.  (There are still large salt pans in the Geelong area at Moolap, and of course the salt was traded prior to European settlement).

Earth gets a voice in this novel, and a very cranky old 21st century Earth she is indeed.  She has lost patience altogether with mankind, constantly complaining about the vagaries of modern life, as if it were not all our fault:

‘Well, I’m the Earth, and it’s my turn to have a say.  Normally I wouldn’t.  Blackfella, whitefella, what’s the difference? Rich man, poor man, man, woman, who cares? I’m too busy givin’ to them bloody trees.  Pushing up minerals an’ water, makin’ gold and clay, oil an’ swamps. You reckon I’ve got time to argue the toss about people. But just let me say this.  People are up themselves.  If I ever find the bloke who gave them free will, I’ll feed him vinegar on a stick or give ‘im six arms or something.  All these good men, all these saints, who do they think they are?  All of ’em reckon they can talk for everyone and is there one of them who has?  Doesn’t matter whose idea it is, there’s always someone gets killed because of it.  (p. 133)


Sit still and listen, because in a few bloody sunrises I’m gettin’ back to fixin’  up your bloody excrement and plastic bags.  Who invented the plastic bag?  One of them men, I bet.


I thought you said you were intelligent. Spend ya life whingeing about break an’ enters, security doors, security cameras, bloody cars that become Luna Park as soon as you go near them, an’ then ya spend three hours a night readin’ about it or watchin’ it on ya picture box.  It makes ya look like a bloody idiot. And don’t sulk.  I haven’t got time to be nice. There goes the bloody sun.  Can’t ya see I’m in a hurry too –  and I’ve got more to do than you. So you’re working on amendments to the GST, native title, same sex superannuation, school milk, artificial aortas – do you think that’s important? Try perfecting a bloody bee, mate, little stingy pricks, imagine if some donkey had given them free will.  (p.134)


Free will.  Bloody nuisance, and it leads to a lack of respect.  Free will inclines you all to think you created yourselves, that you leapt out of your own mighty intelligence and sophistication, you can spell cappuccino and think you’re a genius, you take a punt on the stock exchange, heads or tails, you win, start smokin’ cigars  an’ think people should invite you to parliament house.  (p. 229)

This isn’t the only example of Bruce Pascoe’s playful sense of humour, and Frank and Claudie’s love story is beautiful.

Earth is a terrific book.  It’s demanding because there are so many characters and it takes a while to connect the voices with the relationships that matter so much, but I think it’s brilliant.  The indigenous dialogue can be challenging, but it has a lyrical rhythm that sings from the page like poetry.  And the theme predates by a decade Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance as an imaginative recreation of the settlement years from an indigenous point-of-view.  I can’t understand why this novel wasn’t nominated for any of the major prizes…

Author: Bruce Pascoe
Title: Earth
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2001
ISBN: 9781875641611
Source: Personal library, purchased in a sale for $8.00


Fishpond: Earth


  1. Since this is written entirely in dialogue how easy is it to follow who is speaking?


    • Not as tricky as Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, if you’ve read that? But I won’t pretend it doesn’t offer a challenge, but I found it exhilarating:)


  2. […] Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident  but he’s also a novelist.  I was impressed by Earth, which was published in 2001, and I read it for the 2015 Indigenous Literature […]


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