Swallow the Air

by

Tara June Winch

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Swallow the Air can help.

Swallow the Air: 3. Cloud Busting Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In a flashback, May describes her childhood habit of “cloud busting” with Billy, biking down to the beach in order to explore the dunes and look at the sky. They collect many different kinds of shells, dance in the waves, and dive in the water. They’re too young to be afraid of the ocean, and they both feel perfectly at ease.
Being at the beach is one of May’s only positive childhood memories. To her, the water represents both harmony with her family and a strong connection to nature that she’ll later come to associate with her Aboriginal identity.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
When May and Billy get home, they decorate the house with shells and Mum fries any fish they’ve caught. While she cooks, Mum tells them the story of her saucepans, even though they’ve heard it a million times already. She says it starts in “Gouldburn, 1967 […] a Gouldburn that doesn’t exist anymore.”
Mum grounds her life in the frequent repetition of familiar stories. Even though her life and society often deny her stability and security, she can provide those things herself by the wealth of memory she cultivates.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
In 1967, Mum lives with her own mother, Alice, in a dismal housing project. The rest of her siblings had been put into missions by then, but she stayed with Alice because her skin is very dark. Alice works for a nice family and Mum plays in their yard all day. When they return home, Alice smokes her cigarettes outside. Sometimes she chats with women from the project, but many of them have also lost children recently and they are “trying to forget,” not to be sociable.
For Mum, housing projects are associated with the Australian government’s practice of separating Aboriginal children, especially those of mixed-race heritage, from their families for “assimilation” into white society. Thus, they represent both government suppression of indigenous culture and the ruinous effects of this policy on individual family structures.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
One day, a white salesman arrives in a suit, trying to sell saucepans. Alice puts out her cigarette and asks to look at them. The man opens the box and shows off beautiful stainless steel cookware, expounding on its many merits. The women all laugh, because they know they can’t afford even one of the pots. However, Alice makes a deal with the salesman, Samuel, that she’ll buy the pots and pay him in installments every month.
Just like Aunty’s grocery store lotteries, the cookware represents a level of prosperity and conventional success that Alice won’t ever really be able to obtain. However, rather than stressing the limitations of her life, this episode actually highlights her inherent determination and dignity.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Get the entire Swallow the Air LitChart as a printable PDF.
Swallow the Air PDF
Alice starts taking on extra hours at work in order to save up more money. When he visits every month to collect payments, Samuel brings sweets and chats with the women until after dark. After three years and seven months, Alice has finally made her last payment and gets to collect the cookware. When Samuel brings the set over, he’s filled each pot with dry goods, meat, vegetables, and new knives. He even bakes them a cake. Alice bursts into tears at this gesture.
Even though Alice is an impoverished woman of color and Samuel is a white man peddling the goods of a society which will never accept her, they’re able to connect over time, demonstrating empathy and even generosity.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
When Mum finishes the story, she always cries too. She’s inherited the pots and pans from Alice, and May knows that she would sell everything they owned before she gave them up. May believes that to her grandmother and Mum, “Samuel was much like a cloud buster,” a spot of friendship in her dark life. For them, being around him was like experiencing “a cleansing rain.”
The story of Samuel has entered Mum’s lexicon of oft-repeated tales, just like the myth of Mungi. Even though this story occurs in the context of oppression and poverty, it ends up expressing the same pride and human connection that Mum’s Aboriginal stories do.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon