Swallow the Air

by

Tara June Winch

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Swallow the Air: 18. Country Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Jo drops May off in front of a white house with a small lawn bordered by a fence and a flowerbed. The street “smells of mothballs and farming.” This isn’t the house May imagined, and as she knocks at the door she feels that “this is not how it is supposed to be.”
Instead of traditional practices, the house is characterized by the blandest and most conventional hallmarks of middle-class life. Already, it seems clear that like its predecessors, this quest won’t turn out as May expected.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
A woman with a cigarette comes to the door, and May tells her she’s looking for the Gibsons. The woman, Dotty, says that she and her husband are the Gibsons. She lets May inside. The woman bears no resemblance to May at all, but when she calls her husband into the hall May sees that the man, Percy, looks just like Mum. When May says that her mother is June Gibson, the man says that she was his cousin, but he hasn’t seen her since they were both children.
Finally, May has found what she wanted—someone who is related to, and even once knew, Mum. However, by presenting this reunion in a jarring context, the novel prevents both May and the reader from experiencing the expected feeling of resolution and security.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Puzzled by the unexpected visit, Percy invites May to sit down and pours her a drink. He asks after Mum and May tells him that she’s dead. Percy says that “all your Gibson family” are “gypsies,” from May’s grandmother to Mum to her, from the looks of her backpack. Smiling “cruelly,” Percy asks if she’s come here for money.
Instead of reaffirming the character traits May most valued in Mum—like her unconventionality—Percy denigrates them. He even makes fun of the poverty that May has only just learned to stop feeling ashamed about.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Surprised and angry, May says that she didn’t come “for friggin money.” Percy tells her to “spit out” the reason for her visit, as he has to leave for golf soon. Uncertainly, May tells him that she wanted to know about her family and learn more about the stories Mum always told her.
Percy’s mention of golf highlights the absurd contrast between his bourgeois values and the traditional Aboriginal lifestyle May hoped to find. Earlier in the book May describes the drug users’ eyes as “golf balls”; the description connects the psychological emptiness caused by substance abuse to the spiritual emptiness caused by Percy’s attempt to assimilate into mainstream society.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
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Percy laughs and derides May for wanting to know “ya tribal name, ya totem, ya star chart, the meaning of the world.” Angrily, May gets up to leave, but Percy relents and, in a kinder voice, tells her that just as May did, her grandmother Alice left home on foot looking for meaning. Thirty years later, she came back to the mission with several children in tow, one of whom was Mum. Just out of an abusive relationship with a white man named Jack, she was “desperate” and “sad.” Percy’s parents gave her some food and money, and she left the next day. May remembers that Mum once said a man named Jack was “the first white man to destroy us.” May wants to be free of white men.
Percy is the opposite of what May has been longing for throughout the novel. Rather than affirming her emerging attraction to Aboriginal culture, he has completely disowned his heritage in an attempt to fit into the dominant society around him. At the same time, she learns that she has much in common with her grandmother—they both set out from home on idealistic quests, even if their journeys didn’t proceed according to plan.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Clinging to her original purpose, May asks what it was like growing up in the mission and learning from the elders. Percy tells her that she’s just like her grandmother Alice, who “died of hope.” He says that “we weren’t allowed to be what you’re looking for,” and they didn’t learn from the elders or from anyone. He says that May won’t find any of the things she’s looking for in this place. The people here haven’t been “allowed to be Aboriginal” in a long time, and now the things she’s looking for are gone.
It’s easy to blame Percy for turning away from his heritage, but he points out that from a young age he was essentially forced to do so by the culture around him. Not only has Anglo-Australian rule physically displaced Aborigines from their land, it’s mentally displaced them by dismantling all traditional practices.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Related Quotes
May thinks Percy is on the verge of tears, but he looks around his neatly furnished living room and Dotty smoking at table and tells May that he has a “good life” now. He thinks that Mum probably got her stories from books and May too should read books if she wants to learn. He gets up to leave for his golf match, but says that Dotty will make her some dinner before she leaves. As she shakes Percy’s hand, May feels like crying but forces herself not to. Both know that they won’t see each other again.
May’s family reunion is over as soon as it started. Although Percy and Dotty are more conventionally “functional” than the adults among whom May grew up, it’s clear that they’re far from the perfect and loving alternative to her flawed family that she’s been looking for.
Themes
Family Theme Icon
May walks away from Percy’s house on the highway, which is windy but still full of dust. It will take a long time, but she knows eventually she’ll reach the shore where she started. Everything seems to make sense to her now. She remembers Issy’s drawing; now, she knows that it illustrated the lack of boundaries between the land, the water, and the people that inhabit it. For May, “this land is belonging, all of it for all of us.” All the features of the land are intimately connected, and they belong to everyone equally, from the animals to the people on the Block to May’s own family and ancestors. May wants to “give them to my mother.”
May’s most important quest has “failed” more notably than any of the previous ones, but it’s also led to her most important epiphany. The dreams she’s shared with Johnny have been dashed, but May has learned about her heritage from elders like Issy and Uncle, and she’s grown in wisdom and self-confidence. She even feels closer to Mum, whose loss provoked the discontent that led her to leave home.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Related Quotes
May finds a trucker who will give her a ride. They pull into a truck stop to buy snacks for the ride. Its brightly lit aisles remind May of the Block. Just then, she sees Johnny’s face on the front of a newspaper, under the headline “BOY, 16, DIES IN POLICE CHASE.” In the picture all his “beautiful dreaming” is hidden behind his smile.
It’s ironically fitting that May discovers Johnny’s death at the same time she loses faith in the life they dreamed about together. His death represents the ultimate unfeasibility of this method of creating a meaningful life.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
May feels that she can’t really cry for Johnny because of the angry way in which they parted. At least, she thinks, he died with his dreams intact. Now he can go fishing and swimming in the Torres Islands, just like the turtle Mungi that Mum always talked about.
May is right in pointing out that Johnny hasn’t suffered the disillusionment that she has. On the other hand, May has experienced great person growth and has the opportunity to change her life, while Johnny, mired in urban poverty, will never experience those things.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon