Fifteen years of marriage and two kids later, Irene is still in love with the natty Titch. After the race, she sees her "born salesman" another way. As he poses with his companions "dressed like criminals and racecourse touts," his teeth are "a perfect echo of the Holden's grill."
Thinking he's German, the schoolteacher and radio show quiz champ next door suffers a "phantom homesickness." This lends "a distinctive colour" to his soul until he learns who his parents are. Discovering his true identity evokes "a searing pain." Panic washes over him "like sheet lightning."
Having just lost both his jobs, Willy agrees to be navigator for Mr and Mrs Bobs in the Redex race, and he does so for a time. The revelation of his undreamed-of origin takes place in remote Quamby Downs, where he's arrived apparently by chance. Finding himself related to a mob of Aborigines, Willy too must learn to think another way. He does his best to understand and befriend his aboriginal relatives, though he's not yet confident Lochy (aka Dr. Battery) "would not hold me responsible for the sins of my biological father."
By the end of the jaw-dropping story, the reader too must reassess, and think in new ways. Early on, certain details are dropped to prepare the way for the revelations to come. Where the sheep graze over vast tracts of land, once the plains were covered in shoulder-high kangaroo grass. As well as foreshadowing the Willy's discoveries on the road, this was for me a chilling echo the Canadian prairies before and after the buffalo were wiped out, the people displaced and subjected to brutal attempts at assimilation, and the land plowed up for farming.
Told alternately through two engaging voices, this story rings with the deep truth that the best historic fiction can convey. Irene, the feisty 1950s housewife and mother who remains supportive of the vain and egoistic Titch came fully alive for me. She refuses to internalize the sexist and racist frontier society values that surround her, and her natural sympathy for the tragic figure of the shy and gentle Willy Bachuber brings her into conflict with her husband, who grows in confidence until he resembles his destructive and boastful father, whom Irene could never stand.
As Titch takes pride in his slick radio ad fame and devotes himself to earning more money through car and tire franchises, Irene finds herself unable to ignore Willy's tragic family situation. On the rally, she makes her own horrific discovery about Australia's history of colonization, and in her own way, tries to come to terms with her sad knowledge.
This book is an excellent choice for anyone willing to open the lid on the violent history society has a way of keeping a lid on. In the era of Reconciliation, the first and most necessary act is to witness the past on which our lives are founded.
I found this portrait of 1950s Australia chillingly evocative of the same era in Canada. As a young child in a prairie town, I felt the bewildering sting of knowing that adults around me disrespected people they didn't know for reasons of race and background. They spoke and behaved in ways I recognized instinctively as wrong.