John McIvor is a man of enormous drive and determination. It is the intimate bond with Kuran Station that propels his relentless strife throughout the novel, first to acquire it, then to keep it for himself. This paper will briefly outline the causes of this defining character trait of his and then discuss its consequences for John McIvor’s personal relationships. Towards the end, the generational conflict that ensues between John and his daughter Ruth will be put into the context of the major themes of The White Earth.
It stands to reason that the vigor that he pursues his aim with stems from a deep seated psychological need, acquired during childhood and completely internalized by the time John reaches adulthood. Accordingly, in The White Earth the question of ownership is already raised in John’s earliest childhood experiences.
Son to Daniel McIvor, who holds a managerial position in the Kuran hierarchy, John is bound for greater things. Daniel, a former policeman and, as we learn, “humble” of origin (p. 48), worked his way up and quickly rose through the ranks of the station personnel (p. 25-26). His own reputation somewhat stained (p. 48), Daniel’s ambition concentrates on John, not only considering him his successor as station manager, but planning to elevate his son into the lofty heights of aristocracy, setting him on par with the ruling White family to finally claim the station as his own. This is to be accomplished through a marriage between John and the White family’s youngest member, Elizabeth, the future inheritor of Kuran Station (p. 49):
For young John McIvor, it was the greatest of expectations. His father never spoke of it directly, but the understanding was there, in Daniel’s every look and word. Thus the seed was sown, and John grew up secretly believing that Kuran Station would one day be his. The thought filled him with pride, and as a boy he learnt every inch of the run, every corner and crest, from far out on the plains to high up in the hills. (p. 27)
Naturally, Daniel McIvor’s schemes leave a mark on young John, who internalizes his father’s ambitious plans. Daniel’s implications are enough to instill in the young boy confidence in his supposed future, filling him with “pride” and anticipation. Despite the doubts that assail John from time to time, he cannot break with his plans. In the following excerpt, John, still very young, has to face for the first time that his expectations are not in tune with reality. Mirroring a later scene with his nephew William, John explores the object of his desire, Kuran Station, at the heart of which he finds a haughty young Elizabeth, well aware of the social barrier between the two:
And then, at the end of the hall, in the right-hand corner of the west wing, he came to one last open door. This room was all white and shone with an ethereal glow from arched windows hung with billowing gauze. You shouldn’t be up here, she said. Go away. (…) And John went, his face burning, fleeing down the hall. How had she done that, frightened him so, when he was not afraid of anything? And how was it possible that they would be together one day when he couldn’t even speak in her presence? But he had recovered by the time he ways back outside. She’d caught him off guard, nervous about breaking the rules, that was all. Their mutual destiny was many years off yet, there was plenty of time, and he would show her soon enough, when he was older (…) But the memory of that afternoon remained. And from then on, whenever he thought of Elizabeth, he would see her in that abstracted pose, framed by light, lost in her thoughts, and seemingly unaware that a boy named John McIvor, her husband to be, even existed. (p. 30-31)
The first thing apparent from the extract is the almost religious atmosphere in Elisabeth’s room. The “ethereal glow” from the windows and the “billowing gauze” are suggestive of weightlessness. Together with the “white” of the room this creates a sense of divine detachment. All of this fits into the context of the scene. John’s presence here is almost sacrilegious, he is not allowed inside Kuran House (p. 29) and class barriers separate him from Elisabeth. Also, Elizabeth seems to represent the highest of his expectations, she is, after all, the focal point of his father’s lofty aspirations. And despite, maybe even because of, the obvious gulf between them, Elizabeth fascinates him. In this passage, John is obviously trying to overcome a nagging thought in the back of his head. Will the world concur with what he expects and demands? At this point, he can still reassure himself that it will all work out in the end, that there is “plenty of time” to “show her” his qualities. This assumption, however, will eventually also crumble. Essentially, the passage hints at John’s struggle against objective reality, a conflict increasing in intensity with progression of the story. He is simply unwilling to to bow to the conditions of the real world and unable to acknowledge error in the face of defeat. It is this mindset that will later fuel John’s zeal in the pursuit of his final goal.
When, in an unfortunate turn of events, Edward, the amenable patriarch of the White family, dies without leaving a male heir behind, legal responsibility for Kuran Station devolves to Elisabeth (p. 52). In a dramatic scene, Elisabeth turns on the McIvors, fires Daniel and makes it crystal clear that John, now a young man, will not be her husband. Additionally, Kuran Station will be sold out, with most of its farm land going to the government. John is left awestruck and impotent (p. 54-55). Being separated from Kuran Station, which has come to represent his destiny, deals John a crippling blow and puts him in a position that is unbearable to him:
For John McIvor, banishment from Kuran Station was like an amputation. One moment he had been whole and young and full of hope. The next, a limb had been lopped away and the blood was draining out, leaving him cold and pinched. Elizabeth White had wielded an axe upon his life. (p. 71)
The above quote gives an impression of the significance the separation bears for John’s future. Too rigidly has the expectation of ownership been established in his mind for him to abandon it now. It has become a part of himself that he is unwilling to let go of, an extension of himself, as the amputation metaphor suggests. What Elisabeth did leaves a mark on John, a wound that will not heal, that scars him for the rest of his life. It is this incisive moment that triggers John’s later obsession. And with his “blood”, his vitality, drained out of him, he will have to remain in a state of shock and depression for a while.
Robbed of his future and any orientation, John McIvor leads a desultory existence. He is a swagman for a while, leaving his drinking father behind, going from place to place without really having anywhere to go. Later, we find John working as a timber-getter in the Hoop mountains. These occupations serve him well as temporary distractions from the station.
Many years later, however, John is confronted with Kuran Station once more. His friend and future wife Harriet with him, he stumbles upon the station by mere accident and is immediately tantalized by the sight of it:
It was one of the worst moments of John’s life. (…) Visions of men and women dressed in white, strolling over green grass and reclining in shady recesses or by sparkling water, visions of a stern old man in a panelled office aglow with firelight, and, irresistibly, of a girl in white with curtains floating behind her. But with the visions came a terrible sense of dislocation – for how could any of it have happened in this barren place? It was all so dirty and shrunken and drab. John was hardly aware of Harriet at his side, peering through the windscreen. What a pity, she said, it must have been a nice house once. And an enormous throb of outrage swelled in him. A pity! It was far more than that. The dust, the blank windows, the front doors yawning emptily. He put the car in reverse and pulled away. Even that felt like desertion, as if the building was crying out to him for help. But what could he do? He steered back down the driveway, turned off towards the water hole. But his despair only deepened as he drove. Everywhere he saw the same forlorn signs of neglect. Fences that leant or had fallen, piles of rubbish that had once been sheds and stables. When they came over the first hill, he saw that the little church too was sinking into ruin, the graveyard overgrown with grass. He didn’t give a damn about the cemetery – let the Whites rot and their headstones tumble – but everything else cut with a pain that was almost physical. Bad enough that he had lost everything when it should have been his, worse still to find that no one else even wanted it! He drove the rest of the way in a furious silence, while Harriet gazed all unknowing out the window. (p. 144-145)
In this paragraph, we can see John’s sense of entitlement to the Kuran property resurfacing. John’s vision “of a girl in white with curtains floating behind her” is reminiscent of the earlier scene in Elisabeth White’s bedroom. What is also becoming clear here is that John’s obsession with Kuran Station has reached a point at which it is incomprehensible to the people around him, even those closest to him. The dilapidated state of the house cannot rouse Harriet to more than a fleeting “What a pity.” when John is devastated by the sight. He, however, keeps his silence, signifying that he is unable to reveal his deepest motives to anybody. Instead, he shuts everybody out, creating a barrier between himself and others, one that later affects his personal relationships. Arguably, John’s motivations cannot be understood by others, precisely because they are intrinsically egoistic.
His self-identification with the Kuran grounds evokes in him a feeling of responsibility for the deserted station, which seems to be “crying out to him for help”. This feeling, of course, is rooted in his struggle against the perceived injustice of the world, that deprives him of what “should have been his”. So this is again an instance of reality, in this case the property rights of others, interfering with John’s sense of entitlement towards the station grounds. This is highly ironic if we consider John McIvor’s later campaigning against native title legislation. It is the year 1993, many decades of hard work have passed and the station finally is in his possession. In front of a gathering of members of the “League”, a political organization for the defense of the rights of land owners that he founded, John gives the following speech:
„[T]here‘s no turning back the clock. That‘s why I‘m angry about this legislation. Not because of the Aborigines. But because the legislation is stupid. It ignores reality. It tries to make criminals out of honest people who have worked hard for their land, it tries to say that we stole this country, when in fact we earned it. The new laws will tie us up in a sentimental mishmash of impossible rules that pretend history never happened, that somehow we‘re back where we were two hundred years ago. We‘re not, and they are wrong.“ (p.212)
Here, John accuses those in favor of native title of trying to “tur[n] back the clock”, “ignor[ing] reality”, of “pretend[ing] history never happened”. But what reason did the young John McIvor have to begrudge the Whites? Did they not, too, “work hard for their land” and “earn it”? Did Elizabeth not have every legal right to do what John so despised her for, to sell Kuran Station, a capacity inherent in a title of ownership. And what claim to it did he have back then other than “a sentimental mishmash” of impossibilities, giving way to a childish sense of belonging, a belief in fate and destiny?
His is, or rather was, a cause much more similar to the Aboriginal land rights movement than he can understand. Connecting them and an important theme in The White Earth is the inherent injustice that lurks behind the concept of ownership. This has to do with the fact that there are no objective measures when it comes to what is considered just. It is this injustice that the young John McIvor perceives when he decries what little attention the proprietors of Kuran Station pay to its ruinous state. Himself corrupted by egoism, however, a much older John will rather let Kuran House fall into ruin than allow the Heritage Trust to open it to the public, simply because he can (p. 225). Of course, John’s notions of justice are rooted in his subjective needs. Failing to see this, he creates a double standard with regard to anyone else who is unhappy with the distribution of land, say members of the land rights movement. The aged John McIvor relies on, supposedly objective, legal definitions and egalitarian arguments to defend his right of ownership, e.g. his repeated affirmations that he “earned it” or his statements in the charter of the “League”. Here, John uses classical liberal values like equality and “the rights of the individual” to back up his claim to Kuran Station (p. 133). But acquisitiveness, which we should think common to all humans, always depends on desire. He cannot see, of course, that his claim to the station was just as illegitimate in the eyes of the legal system when he first conceived it, albeit surely more egoistic and arbitrary, as the claims made by Aboriginal organizations are now.
John’s ego-centrism gives way to another important conflict in The White Earth, the family feud of the McIvors. The scene which we will examine takes place at a time where John is doing better than ever financially. A few years have passed since John married Harriet and started off a farming business with the small fortune of her deceased father. Dudley, his old friend from his days in the Hoop mountains, has returned home from World War 2, mentally and physically exhausted. Himself a land owner, Dudley plans to leave all of his property to the couple when he dies. The following discussion between John and Harriet takes place after they discovered that Dudley was sexually abusing their firstborn daughter Ruth: