Harland's Half Acre

by David Malouf

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

Against a broad sweep of Australian twentieth century history, Frank Harland, an artist, lives a life that is emblematic of that country’s evolving social identity, even though he remains an outsider, set apart by his calling.

Harland lives on the fringes of society but seeks an artistic identity rooted in society—more specifically, in his sense of family. A family-tied, worldly undertaking symbolizes that spiritual pursuit: From the early decades of the century until his death in the 1980’s, Harland quietly buys up the farmland that had been worked by his forebears until, during the nineteenth century, it was lost at a card table. That loss dispossessed those ancestors and, in a sense, all the Harlands who came after.

Only occasionally, as Harland’s renown increases, does the reader hear of his land purchases. They betoken his gradual acquisition of a spiritual, artistic landscape. From youth, Harland has endowed his ancestry with a modest kind of mythical quality, and by the time he dies, he has supplemented this with a personal artistic mythology that he has constructed through his life and work.

Harland lives most of his life on the road, gathering impressions of Southern Queensland. Then, approaching death, he is content to inhabit a series of rough-hewn enclosures on an almost uninhabited island. Yet the half acre of the title does not refer specifically to the small plot of sheltered land of his last days, which is repeatedly wracked by violent storms, nor does it necessarily describe Harland’s ancestral farmland. Rather, it is the small patch of identity that Harland carves out against the steep odds posed by a world hostile to beauty.

After an apprenticeship with a graphic artist, and with the coming of the Great Depression, Harland takes to the road. He adapts, spiritually as much as physically, to that life, submitting to enormous economic hardships in pursuit of art. Yet he contends that the purpose of life is, simply, to seek happiness. Misery, he says after living through it and witnessing from afar the devastation of Europe by war, is too easily attained.

He befriends the family of Phil Vernon, who is a youth when he meets Harland just after World War II. That connects him with a broad familylike group of people from many sectors of Australian society. The family suffers tragedy and personal ruin. Harland is often driven to return to a state of virtual homelessness, which appears to be a state suited to him. His development into an itinerant, ascetic artist was foreshadowed during his childhood, described at the beginning of the novel. His father, for example, is renowned for his tall tales and daydreaming.

Before he dies, Harland tries to patch the tattered fabric of his family. Yet it is the artistic drive that is most powerful. He is content to fight the elements as he paints in his rough-hewn shelters. In this way, he returns to the influence that has been as great as family and society: the land. Like his father’s tales, then, his art is “woven out of his life, out of the countryside and the past of their family.”

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