Swallow the Air

by

Tara June Winch

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Swallow the Air: 5. Bushfire Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Near May’s apartment complex is an escarpment from which she can view all the surrounding landscape. When she was younger, she rode her bike there through old mining trails, feeling hidden among the ferns. No matter how hot and dry the beach is, it’s always wet and cloudy up in the mountains.
No matter how grim her environment is, May is adept at finding an escape through nature. This tendency highlights the primacy of nature, even when human society seems to have overrun it.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
After Mum dies, the summer forest fires intensify and the whole coast is dry and smoky. An entire national park between the town and Sydney is burned out, and the news constantly shows falling ash and birds.
Mum’s loss coincides with a human-induced natural disaster, showing implicitly that Anglo-Australian oppression has warped the lives of many indigenous people just as it has destroyed much of the environment in which those people were once rooted.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Around this time, May receives a postcard from her Dad. She puts it in her pocket and rides to the quarry at the foot of the escarpment. Even here, she can smell the fires. She sits down in a small clearing. Normally, the clearing is damp and home to many leeches. According to Mum, leeches are prized by the Dtharawahl people, who used to live here, and they have to respect that because this is “their land.” Now, there are no leeches because the land is dry from the fires.
Mum teaches May respect for Aboriginal culture—the opposite of what she learns from the society around her. It’s important that, in May’s mind, understanding and having respect for nature are almost always linked to understanding and having respect for Aboriginal culture.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Related Quotes
In his brief postcard, Dad apologizes for being out of contact for so long and informs May that he’s picking mangoes near Darwin for a living. On the front of the postcard is a picture of a mango orchard, with a white man standing on a ladder next to one of the trees. May imagines that the man is her father and that he’s in the orchard right now, even though by now the mango harvest is over, the mangoes have been eaten or gone bad, and the laborers have dispersed.
Dad’s long absence and his cavalier postcard show that he’s a derelict father—even if he’s more mentally stable than Mum, he’s a much less committed parent. May’s idealistic fantasies of him, notwithstanding this obvious reality, highlight her poignant desire for a more secure family life.
Themes
Family Theme Icon
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To May, it feels as though Dad has never left and is sitting beside her. She remembers eating watermelon with him when she was five, or learning to fish from him a year later. She can still see him digging in the backyard or rolling a cigarette. She wonders how she could have stopped thinking about him, “allowed the memory of my father to […] cease existing.” Now, all her memories of him come back like “shiny little bubbles.”
Here, memory emerges as an incredibly powerful force—May almost feels as if she’s living in the past by remembering it. As in many other cases, memories keep May afloat in the midst of great difficulty, and they also influence her actions—rekindling her interest in her father and leading her to look beyond her own narrow world.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon