In Tara June Winch’s engaging third book, The Yield, a young woman named August Gondiwindi flies back to Australia, rents a car and drives seven hours inland to the aptly named town of Massacre Plains. This is the small town where August grew up in the care of her grandparents. It’s a place “where the sun slap[s] the earth with an open palm.” It’s the place she fled as a teenager after the traumatic disappearance of her older sister and protector. She is returning after many years for the funeral of her grandfather, Albert “Poppy” Gondiwindi, a revered Wiradjuri (indigenous Australian) elder. She soon discovers that her grandmother and family members are being evicted from their lands because an extraction company has acquired the mineral rights and plans to excavate a vast open-pit tin mine.
Even with a slightly pat ending, this thread of Winch’s narrative is irresistible, as she offers the reader both a tactile and spiritual feel for the forbidding landscape. Her portrayal of August’s rediscovery of herself and her ties to her home is moving. She presents the legacy of oppression and strife among local indigenous people and European settlers with great nuance.
But it’s when this initial thread intertwines with two other storylines that the novel fully realizes itself. One of these narratives is a long letter, a testimony of sorts, from an early 19th-century missionary who finds his calling among the oppressed Wiradjuri. In contrast to church and government powers, he comes to oppose the policy of tearing children from their families in order to “civilize” them. He realizes that the supposed “stupidity” of the indigenous people is actually a profound understanding of their environment. He worries constantly that his ministrations are not helpful, and he discovers that his advocacy makes him a hated outsider.
The other and most innovative thread involves excerpts from the dictionary of Wiradjuri words that Poppy begins compiling near the end of his life. Stripping a people of their language is a standard method for snuffing out indigenous cultures. Poppy’s effort is an act of resistance and affirmation. But the dictionary appears to be lost, and one of August’s quests is to find it.
Winch, an award-winning Aboriginal Australian writer who is now based in France, uses this dictionary of recovered indigenous words to transmit the deeper story of Gondiwindi family history. We read it—and the novel as a whole—with both sorrow and hope.