Swallow the Air

by

Tara June Winch

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Swallow the Air: 17. Mission Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When May arrives in Eubalong and asks at the general store where to find her family, she’s told to go to the mission outside town and ask around, so she hitches a ride there. It’s incredibly hot and May feels queasy in the back seat, which smells like cigarette smoke and dust. When she gets out of the car, she looks around the barren land and can’t imagine anyone living near here. A tiny sign directs her to the mission.
Essentially, missions are rural equivalents of the urban housing projects in which May grew up. Founded and often mismanaged by religious authorities, they were supposed to house displaced Australian Aboriginals and “reeducate” them to participate in mainstream society; however, inhabitants were often mistreated or abused.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
As she walks towards the mission, May feels increasingly less hopeful—all she thinks about is the possibility of getting a meal there. Soon, she sees houses along the road, just like the ones she’s used to in her own neighborhood. She imagines that “they rose up like the estate homes […] a hasty construction of identical walls, devoid of emotion.” To May, they look like “fancy concentration camps.” In the distance she can see a river tributary that’s almost dried up; instead, water tanks supply water to the settlement.
May’s description of the mission as a “concentration camp” is her harshest depiction of the public housing complexes scattered throughout the novel. Accordingly, it’s also her strongest indictment of the system of displacement Aborigines there, categorizing it not just as social oppression but a deliberate attempt to eradicate her people’s way of life.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Children run around the street, and people come in and out of houses. May wonders if they think about the world outside their “forgettable” town or if they themselves forget that “there exist places beyond the highway creases.”
This place seems miserable and insignificant to May, but it’s so similar to the place where she has spent most of her life that her feelings reflect her disillusionment with her own origins as well.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Suddenly, an old man in a cowboy shirt waves to May and tells her to come over to his porch. He tells her that his name is Graham but she can call him Uncle. May asks if he knows any Gibsons, but the only ones Uncle remembers live far away. She’ll have to ask old Betty, who knows everyone in the area, when she gets back from running errands. Uncle says that Betty is “one of the only ones here that knows what’s what,” but she has a hard life because her husband and sons are all alcoholics. The entire mission is falling apart, according to Uncle, and only “bad spirits” remain here. He says that the bad spirits live by the river and that’s why no one goes there anymore.
Like Issy, Uncle is an Aboriginal elder with whom May shares a sense of kinship regardless of the fact that they’re not really related. It’s interesting that Uncle associates the community’s decline with the river, since water is usually a positive force. However, as May has noticed before, the river is mostly dried up, which can represent both the misuse of the land and oppression of its inhabitants by Anglo-Australian society.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
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Uncle tells May about the history of the mission. In 1947, the government built the mission and “shifted plenty of station blacks out ere.” The mission was run by Catholics, whom he dislikes because they claim to be an authority but can’t actually cure the “bad spirit” that afflicts people in the mission. On the contrary, they let pain fester and pass from generation to generation. That’s why there’s so much drinking and anger in the town now.
In the novel, personal discontent and even degeneration is often the result of inherited trauma—for example, Mum’s suicide seems partly caused by her intense consciousness of her people’s lost way of life. May has let go of some of her inherited trauma by confronting the difficult memories of Dad. It’s interesting that Uncle asserts that Anglo-Australian society (in many cases, the cause of this trauma), has no real methods of addressing it.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Uncle says that May must have observed this pattern in Sydney as well. Without any meaningful outlet for their anger, people act out through violence and get sent to prison, where their mental state deteriorates even further. The government doesn’t care about this issue, and in fact prefers to lock people up so as not to think about them.
Here, Uncle contextualizes many of May’s observations within a political framework, helping her make sense of them and direct her anger. He’s acting in direct contrast to mainstream society, which denies its Aboriginal citizens a logical framework for events that affect them or a useful way to express anger.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
“Our people,” Uncle says, have “seen forty bloody millenniums” and the government, which has been around for much less time, still mistreats them. The only time the government even pretends to respect Aborigines is when they want to display them for tourists. Uncle believes that the government and the churches are “all one evil,” working together against the Aboriginal community. After this statement, he becomes dejected and says he wishes someone could tell him he was wrong.
Earlier in the novel, May refers to Mum’s talk about “conspiracies” as the product of her confused mental state. Here, Uncle is basically outlining a large conspiracy against Aboriginal Australians, and his explanation makes sense. Through him the novel points out that radical doubt of mainstream society, so easily labeled as fringe insanity, is both valid and necessary.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Betty’s car pulls up across the street and Uncle wishes May good luck, telling her to take off her hat when she talks to Betty. When May tells the elderly woman what she’s looking for, Betty says the only remaining Gibsons live at Lake Cargelligo. Betty’s daughter, Jo, can drive May there. Soon, May is speeding away from the mission in Jo’s car.
Uncle’s injunction that May respect her elders is similar to Joyce’s principles, and reflects a desire to maintain a dignified and cohesive community even in the face of serious outside pressure.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon