Arriving in Capricornia (a fictional name for the Northern Territory) in 1904 with his brother Oscar, Mark Shillingworth soon becomes part of the flotsam and jetsam of Port Zodiac (Darwin) society. Dismissed from the public service for drunkenness, Mark forms a brief relationship with an Aboriginal woman and fathers a son, whom he deserts and who acquires the name of Naw-Nim (no-name). After killing a Chinese shopkeeper, Norman disappears from view until the second half of the novel.
Oscar, the respectable contrast to Mark, marries and tries to establish himself on a Capricornian cattle station, Red Ochre, but is deserted by his wife and eventually returns for a time to Batman (Melbourne), accompanied by his daughter Marigold and foster son Norman, who has been sent to him after Mark's desertion.
Oscar rejects the plea of a former employee, Peter Differ, to see to the welfare of his daughter Constance; Constance Differ is placed under the 'protection' of Humboldt Lace, a Protector of Aborigines, who seduces her and then marries her off to another man of Aboriginal descent. Forced into prostitution, Constance is dying of consumption when discovered by a railway fitter, Tim O'Cannon, who will take care of Constance's daughter, Tocky, until his own death in a train accident.
Hearing news in 1928 of an economic boom in Capricornia, Oscar returns to his station, where he is joined by Marigold and Norman, who has grown to manhood believing himself to be the son of a Javanese princess and a solider killed in the First World War. Soon after, he discovers his mother was an Aboriginal woman, and meets his father, with whom he will not reconcile until later in the novel. Norman then goes on a series of journeys to discover his true, Aboriginal self. On the second of these journeys, he meets and wanders in the wilderness with Tocky, who has escaped from the mission station to which she was sent after the death of O'Cannon. During this passage, she kills a man in self-defense, which leads to Norman's being accused of murder, at the same time his father is prosecuted for the death of the Chinese shopkeeper. At the end of the novel they are both acquitted, Heather and Mark are married, and Norman returns to Red Ochre, where he finds the body of Tocky and their child in a water tank in which she had taken refuge from the authorities. (Source: Oxford Companion to Australian Literature)
'I first read Xavier Herbert’s remarkable novel Capricornia in 1972 – the year I was married – and it led to several heated discussions with my newly acquired father-in-law. Later I discovered that his grazier forebears had been – for their time – enlightened squatters. Around 1900, they commissioned Steele Rudd’s father, the ex-convict Thomas Davis, to write a memoir of his early days on the Darling Downs. As well as a frank account of frontier violence, it included an extensive glossary of Aboriginal words.' (Introduction)
'Northern Australia is rediscovered by each new generation of Australian politicians. Dams, mines, large transport projects, a food bowl for Asia and many other projects are promised and sometimes delivered, but then the political momentum fades away and the focus of attention turns to other issues. What is often missing in discussion is the region’s long history of nation-building initiatives and proposals, stretching back to 1901. Without this knowledge we are likely to repeat the mistakes of the past.
'Northern Dreams brings to life the passionate arguments about Northern Australia’s national significance and analyses the political debates that have periodically drawn the public’s attention northwards. It also highlights the role that Australian politicians such as Gough Whitlam, Ben Chifley, Robert Menzies and Bob Hawke played in shaping northern development policies to suit their times. Northern Dreams is the definitive history of the politics of northern development in Australia.'
Source: Publisher's blurb.
'Since its publication in 1938 critics have generally read Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia as a nationalist novel, even when its nationalism is seen to be structured by contradiction. But little attention has been given to the ways in which Herbert’s complex, multifarious and heteroglossic novel exceeds and challenges the very possibility of coherent national space and a coherent national story. This essay considers moments and spaces in Herbert’s novel where the national is displaced and unravelled. Drawing on Rebecca Walkowitz’s idea of cosmopolitan style and Suvendrini Perera’s work on Australia’s insular imagination I identify a critical cosmopolitanism that inheres in the novel’s geographical imagination and its literary form, particularly the narrative voice which retains a critical distance from the nationalist sensibility of various characters and plot lines, performing a detached and restless homelessness that I identify with the cosmopolitan. Ultimately I ask how the novel’s spatial and environmental imagination displaces its nationalist agenda, making space for a different kind of social imagination—one that does not confine itself to the terms of the nation or organise itself around a central figure for the nation.' (Publication abstract)
'In today’s global celebrity culture it’s hard to imagine a word more over-used and abused than ‘genius’. It is a slippery word with a long and contradictory conceptual history. Yet, in the Land of the Tall Poppy, self-confessions of genius invariably have paved a broad road to public ridicule and denigration. Xavier Herbert’s notion of genius was not static. It changed throughout his life and it evolved through his writing. He agreed with Carlyle that the first condition of genius must always be a ‘transcendent capacity of taking trouble’ and on this foundation he built his own concept of genius, as the unending ‘capacity for loving’. This article explores what genius meant to Xavier Herbert and how it translated into his fiction, before considering how our sense of genius today influences the way we respond to his most challenging fictions of love and hate, 'Capricornia' and 'Poor Fellow My Country'.' (Publication abstract)
'Xavier Herbert published his bestseller Capricornia in 1938, following two periods spent in the Northern Territory. His next major work, Poor Fellow My Country (1975), was not published until thirty-seven years later, but was also set in the north during the 1930s. One significant difference between the two novels is that by 1975 photo-journalism had become a significant force for influencing public opinion and reforming Aboriginal policy. Herbert’s novel, centring upon Prindy as vulnerable Aboriginal child, marks a sea change in perceptions of Aboriginal people and their place in Australian society, and a radical shift toward use of photography as a means of revealing the violation of human rights after World War II. In this article I review Herbert’s visual narrative strategies in the context of debates about this key historical shift and the growing impact of photography in human rights campaigns. I argue that Poor Fellow My Country should be seen as a textual re-enactment, set in Herbert’s and the nation’s past, yet coloured by more recent social changes that were facilitated and communicated through the camera’s lens. Like all re-enactments, it is written in the past conditional: it asks, what if things had been different? It poses a profound challenge to the state project of scientific modernity that was the Northern Territory over the first decades of the twentieth century.' (Publication abstract)