Where to start with this big story, plump with important themes, lush language, and rich history? No review that I will do of Tara June Winch’s novel, The Yield, will capture all the elements of this book, so instead I will focus on the two parts that drew me in – the experience of grief, and the meaning of words.
The story focuses predominantly on two characters – Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi who, knowing he will soon die, puts pen to paper to record the language of his people. His life has been spent on the banks of the Murrumby River at Prosperous House, and his stories reveal the importance of landscape and the role of particular people in his life.
August Gondiwindi has been living in London for a decade when she learns of her grandfather’s death. She returns home for his burial, wracked with grief and burdened by the tragedy she had intended to leave behind in Australia – the disappearance of her sister, Jedda.
The stories of Albert and August’s lives are told against an unfolding threat – the land at Prosperous is to be repossessed by a mining company. August is determined to save their land and the stories that go with it.
There exists a sort of torture of memory if you let it come, if you invite the past to huddle beside you, comforting like a leech. He was telling her more – that a footprint in history has a thousand repercussions, that there are a thousand battles being fought every day because people couldn’t forget something that happened before they were born. There are few worse things than memory, yet few things better, he’d said. Be careful.
Grief, specifically ambiguous loss, is explored in a number of ways in The Yield, most obviously through the parts of the story that relate to Jedda’s disappearance.
Life or death have finality, limbo doesn’t; no-one wants to hear about someone lost.
Winch captures the yawning uncertainty of such loss, describing Jedda’s disappearance as a time during which ‘…almost every woman’s hair in the family then took a journey into silver…‘, and for August, just nine-years-old, ‘…her heart stretched like bubblegum string until it snapped. And it stayed snapped.‘ At a broader level, the character of Jedda represents the grief and trauma of the Stolen Generations.
The importance of place is also explored in terms of grief and loss. August asks what would happen if Jedda were to return and ‘no one was there’, and reflects –
‘…I don’t know who I am without this place.. Just the idea of Prosperous here, when I was away, was a comfort. It’s a place I could always come back to.’
August’s thoughts on ‘place’ are revealed alongside the concurrent plot line – that the land of Prosperous is being ‘repossessed’ for mining. I don’t need to spell out the irony (or crime) of land being ‘repossessed’ from Indigenous Australians.
The loss of the land cuts the last remaining ties the people from the banks of the Murrumby have to the context for their stories, history and spiritual beliefs. Winch has structured the book around alternating chapters in the past, present, and ‘storytelling’ through Albert’s dictionary of Wiradjuri words. The definition of each word reveals the importance of the land.
baayanha – yield in English is the reaping, the thing that man can take from the land, the things he’s waited for and gets to claim. A wheat yield. In my language it’s the things you give to, the movement, the space between things.
There is power in this story – the legacy we leave, the attitude we have. In the face of losing Prosperous, August’s grandmother says, “Please don’t be a victim, Augie. It’s an easy road, that one.” And this is the message that has lingered – how do situations change if we consider being the victim as the ‘easy path’? I’ve been testing the idea in various scenarios. I haven’t made my mind up as to how far it applies but it’s interesting, and I keep mulling it over, and ultimately, that’s the stuff of a great book.
4/5 A rich reading experience.
Of cooking murrnong (milky yam) in an earth oven –
When it was ready, they dug up the gulambula and then we ate the steamed dinner. Then we talked about the little things that are the big things.