Aussie Book Review: The Great Plains by Nicole Alexander
“It is Dallas 1886, and the Wade Family is going from strength to strength: from a thriving newspaper and retail business in Texas to a sprawling sheep station half a world away in Queensland.
Yet money and power cannot compensate for the tragedy that struck twenty-three years ago, when Joseph Wade was slaughtered and his seven-year-old daughter Philomena abducted by Apache Indians.
Only her uncle, Aloysius, remains convinced that one day Philomena will return. So when news reaches him that the legendary Geronimo has been captured, and a beautiful white woman discovered with him, he believes his prayers have been answered.
Little does he know that the seeds of disaster have just been sown.
Over the coming years three generations of Wade men will succumb to an obsession with three generations of mixed-blood Wade women: the courageous Philomena, her hot-headed granddaughter Serena, and her gutsy great-granddaughter Abelena – a young woman destined for freedom in a distant red land. But at what price . . . ?”
“Genes and family may determine the foundation of the house, but time and place determine its form” – Jerome Kagan
In 1863, Joseph Wade had deserted his post to travel into New Mexico to bring his children back to Fort Washita after his wife had succumbed during childbirth. Ambushed en route, Joseph and his young son died in the skirmish but his daughter, Philomena, was captured by the infamous Geronimo and his band of Apache Indians, never to be seen again.
Twenty-three years later, Aloysius Wade receives news that Philomena has been sighted travelling with Geronimo to Texas and suddenly his memories of her mother Ginny start to haunt him as the burden of patriarch begins to weigh heavily on his shoulders. Familial duty and pride for his lineage equally drive him to meet with Philomena. Unfortunately, she is no longer the little girl she used to be and they part but not before he removes her newborn grand-daughter from her custody shortly after her birth – a decision that will have repercussions on his own family and the following two generations as the Wade family crosses two continents in an attempt to eradicate a culture.
Amidst a family who has lied to her about her birth-right and the white culture of the day which was rife with racism, Serena grows into a spirited young woman displaying a love for the outdoors, an attraction to fire as well as a penchant for collecting dead things. For Aloysius, the doctor’s words of so many years before begin to ring true:
“Granted there is some dilution circulating through the child but there is no reason not to assume that she would not assimilate into society with ease. Nature versus nurture, Aloysius. The ongoing debate of whether an individual is formed by birth-right or upbringing is most definitely leaning towards nurture. This baby will be moulded by her environment. Your environment.”
and he realises, after an accident in their home, that Serena will need to be told the truth.
An epically structured story, Nicole Alexander writes in chapters that switch between the Wade men and Philomena’s descendants as she entwines the histories of two countries with Serena and Abelena’s somewhat tragic search for identity and belonging.
As usual our “heart of Australian storytelling” captures her audience by giving us fully rendered characters that you will either come to loathe, love or pity as she accurately portrays the clashing perceptions and prejudices of the white people towards the Native American Indians whilst also delving into the hearts and minds of her non-white characters, laying bare their emotional turmoil and anger at the unaccepting world they inhabit.
In doing this, Nicole shows us both sides of the coin and, while I came to loathe and pity the Wade men with their small-minded obsessions I admired Philomena’s kin, particularly Abelena, for the strength and tenacity she shows in trying to overcome her circumstances.
Nicole’s passion for the bush once again comes through in her writing as the landscape lives and breathes on its own from the treeless, semi-arid red plateau of the Great Plains in Oklahoma with its turbulent weather patterns to life on a sheep station in our own dry, parched land of Australia.
Peppered with symbolism, punctuated by stories from the Native American Dreaming and Aboriginal Dreamtime and stirring up the age-old philosophical debate of “nature versus nurture”, Nicole has added extra dimensions to this generational saga, tying up all the loose ends perfectly. I have no doubt that while the general reader will turn the final pages with a satisfied sigh, book clubs will pick it apart with unadulterated zeal.
I wish to thank Random House Australia for providing me with an uncorrected hard copy of this novel.
A Little About the Author
A fourth-generation grazier, Nicole returned to her family's property in the early 1990s. She is currently the business manager there and has a hands-on role in the running of the property.
Nicole has a Master of Letters in creative writing and her novels, poetry, travel and genealogy articles have been published in Australia, Germany, America and Singapore.
The Great Plains is her fifth novel.