Swallow the Air

by

Tara June Winch

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May Gibson Character Analysis

The novel’s protagonist, a fifteen-year-old Aboriginal Australian girl. May grows up in an impoverished housing project in the coastal city of Wollongong. Her Dad abandons the family when she’s a young girl and her Mum commits suicide a few years later, leaving her to be raised by Aunty, who is an alcoholic and gambling addict. Due to the instability of her parent figures and family life, May is incredibly self-sufficient and astute, leaving home and acting as an adult even though she’s very young. Her traumatic childhood also informs her craving for a more functional and loving family, leading her to set off across Australia in search first of Dad and then of Mum’s relatives. As the novel progresses, May becomes more curious about her Aboriginal heritage, which she views as an escape from the urban poverty and addiction she observes everywhere she visits. In this sense, her journey is a failure; instead of the thriving Aboriginal society she dreams of, May finds that her mother’s family has all but died out and her remaining relative, Percy, is intent on assimilating into Anglo-Australian society and uninterested in a relationship with her. However, over the course of the novel May grows more mature, learns about Aboriginal culture and her connection to the land around her, and becomes reconciled to the childhood memories that have caused her so much pain. Her eventual return to Wollongong shows that she’s finally able to face her childhood without pain, and that she’s newly committed to keeping her family intact, despite its flaws.

May Gibson Quotes in Swallow the Air

The Swallow the Air quotes below are all either spoken by May Gibson or refer to May Gibson. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the University of Queensland Press edition of Swallow the Air published in 2006.
1. Swallow the Air Quotes

I thought about Mum’s pain being freed from her wrists, leaving her body, or what was left […] And I knew it was all right not to forget.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Mum
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:
4. My Bleeding Palm Quotes

Paradise Parade, built over the old Paradise Abattoir, bore two long rows of housing commission flats, unregistered cars, busted prams and echoes of broken dreams, all crammed into our own special section of Woonona Beach. Paradise, ha!

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker)
Related Symbols: Housing Projects
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

Soon they’d demolish all the fibro and move us mob out to the western suburbs. For now we were to be satisfied with the elitist postcode and our anonymity.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker)
Related Symbols: Housing Projects
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:
5. Bushfire Quotes

It is their land, Mum would say, so we have to help look after it for them in exchange for our staying here. Be respectful, she’d say.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Mum
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:
6. Leaving Paradise Quotes

Billy and me were like shadows; we could merge into the walls without being noticed. We’d move on the same tides; when we were laughing we couldn’t stop each other, when we were talking neither of us could get a word in, when we were fishing, being sad, or being silent, we were both empty cups.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Billy Gibson
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:
7. To Run Quotes

If you could be any fruit what would you be? I would be the mango that breaks off the stem into my dad’s fingers, the apple of his eye before I slide into the picking bag.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Dad
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:
8. Territory Quotes

My old man isn’t though; his family are from the First Fleet and everything. Rich folk they were, fancy folk from England.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Dad, Pete
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

A jawbone crunches under a slice of bare knuckles. Bloodied eyeballs throw blank expressions. Mouths fling spittle streamers about the dirt red ring. Frantic, finger-bitten punches claw tangled in the shiny skin.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Dad, Pete
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

I remembered now, when that anger face became his always face and the world ceased to be real, to be able to be understood, so I had left it behind. I couldn’t remember the endings to the memories of him. But here they were laid bare—the bones of him that I had hidden.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Dad
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

The screams must have been so deafening, the river of tears so overflowing that the current could only steal her. The flood breaking so high, that she had to leave us behind. We couldn’t swim either.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Mum, Dad
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:
9. The Block Quotes

I didn’t see the color that everyone else saw, some saw different shades—black, and brown, white. I saw me, May Gibson with one eye a little bigger than the other. I felt Aboriginal because Mum had made me proud to be […] but when Mum left, I stopped being Aboriginal.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Mum
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

She told me about the history of Redfern, about the housing corporation stealing everyone’s money and homes, about how it used to be a real strong community. “And now,” she says shaking her head, “it’s the young fellas taking our money as well and the drugs stealing our community.”

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Joyce / The Old Woman (speaker)
Related Symbols: Housing Projects
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

“May, you got people that you gotta find, things you gotta learn. You will learn them ere, but I don’t want you to. Luck at Justine, smack the only thing teachin her now!”

Related Characters: Joyce / The Old Woman (speaker), May Gibson, Justine
Related Symbols: Housing Projects
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:
10. Chocolate Quotes

He’d never tell you about Africa, and I never asked. It was his secret—his past, that someday, revisited, would become his home again. He never asked me where I was from either—it was an unspoken understanding.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Charlie
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:
11. Wantok Quotes

He takes my hand like always and we scramble up the palms and hack down coconuts with a machete, we run down to the rocky beaches and cast off our canoe, we fish all day, following the reefs and tides and winds […] We rest in the houses as warm tropical storms light up the bruised sky.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Johnny
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:
12. Painted Dreaming Quotes

The sky showing the journey the waters make, the tracks, the beds balancing liquid from cloud to crevasse. Follow the leatherback turtle through tide, the waterbirds fly between currents. I knew I had to get out of the city, get out of the boxes they put you in.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Mum
Page Number: 129
Explanation and Analysis:
13. Mapping Waterglass Quotes

Mum’s stories would always come back to this place, to the lake, where all Wiradjuri would stop to drink. Footprints of your ancestors, she’d say, one day I’ll take you there.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Mum
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:
14. Just Dust Quotes

Issy says they don’t understand that just because you can’t see something, don’t mean it’s not there. She says that under the earth, the land we stand on, under all this is water. She says that our people are born from quartz crystal, hard water. We are powerful people, strong people.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Issy
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:
18. Country Quotes

There is a big missing hole between this place and the place you’re looking for. That place, that people, that something you’re looking for. It’s gone. It was taken away. We weren’t told, love; we weren’t allowed to be Aboriginal.

Related Characters: Percy Gibson (speaker), May Gibson
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

This land is belonging, all of it for all of us. This river is that ocean, these clouds are that lake, these tears are not only my own. They belong to the whales, to Joyce […] they belong to the spirits. To people I will never even know. I give them to my mother.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Mum, Joyce / The Old Woman
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:
20. Home Quotes

My mother knows that I am home, at the water I am always home. Aunty and my brother, we are from the same people, we are of the Wiradjuri nation, hard water. We are of the river country, and we have flowed down the rivers to estuaries to oceans.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Mum, Billy Gibson, Aunty
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

An excavator starts its smothering engine over the torrent of each barrel. Over the sun. Over the blue. And I wonder, if we stand here, if we stay, if they stop digging up Aunty’s backyard, stop digging up a mother’s memory, stop digging up our people, maybe then, we’ll all stop crying.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Aunty
Related Symbols: Housing Projects
Page Number: 198
Explanation and Analysis:
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Swallow the Air PDF

May Gibson Character Timeline in Swallow the Air

The timeline below shows where the character May Gibson appears in Swallow the Air. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
1. Swallow the Air
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
May remembers the day she realized her mother was “head sick,” or mentally ill. That morning,... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
May rides fast to keep up with Billy, who is carrying the fishing gear. Both children... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Exploring the tide pools, May finds a dead stingray draped across a rock “like a plastic rain coat.” She wonders... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Neither Billy nor May catches any fish, only some small shellfish called pipis. Billy says they should go to... (full context)
Family Theme Icon
Substance Abuse Theme Icon
When May and Billy arrive at Aunty’s house, they find a police car outside. In the house,... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
May takes off the makeshift helmet and thinks about the dead stingray she saw before, and... (full context)
2. Grab
Displacement Theme Icon
...their shopping carts. One day she comes home elated, having won the contest. She promises May and Billy that this year they’ll have a real Christmas turkey. (full context)
Displacement Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
At the Grocery Grab, Billy and May watch and cheer while Aunty runs down the aisles frantically throwing food into her cart.... (full context)
Family Theme Icon
Substance Abuse Theme Icon
...to poker. Aunty often lies to the children about visiting the casino or losing money. May imagines that the bright machines at the casino represent her desperate wish to pay their... (full context)
3. Cloud Busting
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
In a flashback, May describes her childhood habit of “cloud busting” with Billy, biking down to the beach in... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
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When May and Billy get home, they decorate the house with shells and Mum fries any fish... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
4. My Bleeding Palm
Family Theme Icon
Despite their many hardships, the family has good times, too. When May is in eighth grade, she wins the school art prize and Billy gets a job... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
One day, Aunty dresses up in stilettos and goes out to visit her new boyfriend. May wanders into the bathroom and looks at the “cocksucker red lipstick” she’s applied to her... (full context)
Displacement Theme Icon
May walks through their dilapidated public housing neighborhood, ironically called Paradise Parade. The neighborhood is near... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
The cycleway is the only thing that connects May to the expensive real estate on the other side of the beach. The ocean spray... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
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When May was younger, she often rode down the cycleway with Billy to reach the creek where... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
May decides to run alongside the path in order to reach the creek, where she won’t... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
The man finds May and drops the bottle he’s carrying. She runs toward the water but trips and falls.... (full context)
5. Bushfire
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Near May’s apartment complex is an escarpment from which she can view all the surrounding landscape. When... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Around this time, May receives a postcard from her Dad. She puts it in her pocket and rides to... (full context)
Family Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
To May, it feels as though Dad has never left and is sitting beside her. She remembers... (full context)
6. Leaving Paradise
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Mum once told May that although “no one taught Billy how to fight,” he was tough ever since he... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...father figure, Mum found another partner, this one a white man, and gave birth to May a few years later. Billy was still sickly, often fainting or weak, but when he... (full context)
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When Billy turns eighteen, he and May are still living with Aunty. Along with her boyfriend Craig, Aunty is a serious alcoholic... (full context)
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On Billy’s birthday, May buys a cake and Aunty gives him a flask filled with bourbon. She tells him... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
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When Billy and May get home, they find Craig holding Aunty’s face next to the red-hot stovetop. Billy grabs... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
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From then on, whenever May walks through Paradise Parade or to the beach, she feels Billy’s absence acutely. She’s always... (full context)
7. To Run
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Tired of waiting for the situation to improve, May “[takes] the mango into my mouth” and decides to search for Dad. Aunty can’t appreciate... (full context)
Family Theme Icon
May packs her backpack and leaves for a squat, or abandoned building, that she knows of... (full context)
Substance Abuse Theme Icon
Sheepa asks May if she likes “poppies.” She doesn’t know what to say, but decides it probably doesn’t... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Substance Abuse Theme Icon
The opium causes May’s memories to replay like distorted movies. She remembers being with Dad in the garden, except... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
One day, Sheepa gives May some money and tells her to buy lunch at the grocery store. May shoplifts some... (full context)
Family Theme Icon
Substance Abuse Theme Icon
When May arrives home, there are two new men and a woman in the house. One is... (full context)
Displacement Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Substance Abuse Theme Icon
In the middle of the night, May wakes up and goes to the bathroom. There, she finds a girl she’s never seen... (full context)
8. Territory
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
May finds a ride with a trucker who is heading towards Darwin, which he says is... (full context)
Substance Abuse Theme Icon
May rides in friendly silence with Pete, the truck driver, listening to his country music and... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
The next day, May wakes up achy and nauseous. She knows she’s experiencing opium withdrawal. If she can make... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
...a detour to a local rodeo. They walk through a crowd of parked cars and May is happy to feel the wind blowing about her. However, when they reach the fairground,... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Suddenly, May recognizes that one of the people “watching the men bleed faces” is Dad. She says... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Dad’s angry face reminds May of all his angry moments in the past. She remembers standing with him by the... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Now, it seems to May that Mum was “a beaten person,” unable to stand up to Dad or even scream... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Finally, having truly remembered Dad, May can “let him go.” She walks back to the truck and waits for Pete, who... (full context)
9. The Block
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
May sits aimlessly in a park in Sydney, imagining she’s in “a castle where I wait... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
One day, an old woman walking through the park sees May and coaxes her out of the gazebo. She tells May not to be ashamed of... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
In the train station, May washes her face and looks at herself in the mirror. The old woman’s kindly reassurance... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
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May and the old woman, who introduces herself as Joyce, take the train to a crowded... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
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May says that life in her own impoverished town is nothing compared with her stint on... (full context)
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Substance Abuse Theme Icon
During the day, Joyce tells May about growing up on the Block and working in a nearby factory. She says that... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
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Substance Abuse Theme Icon
Joyce takes care of May, making sure she doesn’t stay out late and has enough food, even finding her a... (full context)
Family Theme Icon
May feels that Joyce doesn’t want her in the house anymore and is ashamed. She stands... (full context)
10. Chocolate
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Every day, May and Charlie share fruit for a snack at the carwash where they both work. After... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
However, May and Charlie are both wary of their boss, Mr. Tzuilakis, who “waddles” out from his... (full context)
Family Theme Icon
One day, May surprises Charlie with watermelon, a fruit they both love. Seeing his approving smile, she wishes... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
...quickly arrest Charlie and take him away in a car after shaking the boss’s hand. May stands in shock, looking after him, until Mr. Tzuilakis says Charlie will be deported and... (full context)
Displacement Theme Icon
When May returns to work, she sees some young men hanging around by the carwash. They want... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
May grabs Charlie’s thumb piano and runs to the Block. She sees a police car outside... (full context)
11. Wantok
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
In the midst of all her worries, when May spends time with Johnny, she can escape to daydreams of beautiful beaches where they can... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
When May first arrived at Joyce’s house, Johnny tried to flirt with her, informing her one day... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Johnny tells May all the stories about the Torres Strait he’s heard from visiting uncles. There, he says,... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
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When Johnny and May return to Joyce’s house after these long talks, they feel immune to the grim poverty... (full context)
12. Painted Dreaming
Displacement Theme Icon
For a while, May goes to stay with some of her friends in an abandoned building, which they decorate... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
In her cell, May dreams of Windradyne, a 19th-century Wiradjuri resistance leader. In the dream, he is angry and... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
In Joyce’s house, May finds Johnny smoking a bong. He laughs when he finds she has been arrested, telling... (full context)
Displacement Theme Icon
Angry, May yells at Johnny that he’s not going to change or move for anyone’s sake, not... (full context)
13. Mapping Waterglass
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
May buys hot chips at a dusty rest stop before setting out to hitchhike; she can... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
...that people never leave places like these. Soon, they’re approaching Lake Cowal and Gary gives May his number, telling her that he and his wife would be happy to have her... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
As they draw near to the town, Gary offhandedly asks May if she knows about the mining compound. Soon, she sees that a large area is... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
May gets out of the car and walks to the dusty edge of the lake. All... (full context)
14. Just Dust
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
At the lake, May meets an old woman named Issy, who lives near the lake and has dedicated herself... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Issy tells May that the lake “works like a heart, pumping its lifeblood from under the skin.” Everything... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Issy draws a circle in the ground and tells May that everything is sacred, both inside and outside the circle. Both areas should be cared... (full context)
15. Cocoon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
In a flashback, May remembers sitting by the fire pit in her backyard and watching Mum pull up in... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
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...the fish on the fire pit. Billy said he was happy on the ocean, and May felt that they shared his happiness. (full context)
16. Bila Snake
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
The morning after speaking with Issy, May stands looking at the sleepy river and its slow-moving, dusty water. It seems to her... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
May remembers that Mum always said that “when we worry […] we should take a walk.”... (full context)
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May catches a carp in her jumper. It’s hard to cook and she wishes to be... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
May buys a hamburger with her last bit of money. She’s not worried about her next... (full context)
17. Mission
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
When May arrives in Eubalong and asks at the general store where to find her family, she’s... (full context)
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.... (full context)
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... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
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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... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Uncle tells May about the history of the mission. In 1947, the government built the mission and “shifted... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Uncle says that May must have observed this pattern in Sydney as well. Without any meaningful outlet for their... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity 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... (full context)
18. Country
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Jo drops May off in front of a white house with a small lawn bordered by a fence... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement 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... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity 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... (full context)
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... (full context)
The Power of Memory 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... (full context)
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Clinging to her original purpose, May asks what it was like growing up in the mission and learning from the elders.... (full context)
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May thinks Percy is on the verge of tears, but he looks around his neatly furnished... (full context)
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May walks away from Percy’s house on the highway, which is windy but still full of... (full context)
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May finds a trucker who will give her a ride. They pull into a truck stop... (full context)
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May feels that she can’t really cry for Johnny because of the angry way in which... (full context)
19. The Jacaranda Tree
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
May says that she has “jagged recollections,” which both allow her to feel immersed in previous... (full context)
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One of the memories May always return to is the jacaranda tree in Mum’s backyard, bare for most of the... (full context)
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To May, a backyard is “an odd thing”—a piece of nature in the middle of so much... (full context)
20. Home
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
When May arrives at her neighborhood the tide is coming in. She walks to the water and... (full context)
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May walks back up the beach towards the road, feeling that she understands the meaning of... (full context)
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May knows she could run away again and try to escape her family and its painful... (full context)
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When May reaches her neighborhood, Paradise Parade is “warring”—many of the houses are in the process of... (full context)
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In high spirits, May walks through the broken fence and shouts that Aunty should get it fixed. She runs... (full context)
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May sits down at the table and flips through the dozen tablecloths that are layered over... (full context)
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May looks outside at the gulls that are whirling over the water. The wind has changed... (full context)