Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 807
Both of young Stan Parker’s parents are dead, and Stan has no intention of following in his father’s footsteps as a blacksmith or of remaining in the confining atmosphere of the Australian bush town where he grew up. Wanting to start a new life, he leaves his hometown and travels to an unsettled area outside Sydney, where he has inherited some property. He plans to develop the acreage into a farm. He clears the land, plants crops, and builds himself a shack.
Lonely in the wilderness, he visits some relatives in a town, and at a dance there he meets a simple girl named Amy. After a brief courtship, the two are married one morning; they then drive all day in a wagon across the countryside and settle that evening on the primitive farm.
They both work hard and make improvements to their property as the early years of their marriage pass. The major event to take place outside their immediate lives is a great flood, which fortunately does not destroy their farm. Stan joins with other volunteers and assists in rescuing settlers who have been stranded by the flooding. Later, Amy and Mrs. O’Dowd, a neighbor, go to town to meet their husbands after the floodwaters have receded. During this period, Stan and Amy have experiences that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Stan sees an aged man suspended from a tree above the flooded land; even though the man is dead and Stan can do nothing to help him, the image continues to haunt him. Amy picks up a lost child and takes him home the night after the flood. He disappears the next morning, leaving only a bit of colored glass behind, which she saves (and many years later gives to her grandson).
The Parkers continue to labor, adding to their house, gathering a herd of milk cows, planting and harvesting crops. Other families settle nearby, a village gradually appears, and a wealthy Sydney family constructs a grand country house on adjoining land, naming the estate Glastonbury. Two children are born to the Parkers: a daughter, Thelma, and a son, Ray. Amy develops a fixation on Madeleine, a visitor to Glastonbury, and believes that this elegant woman holds some kind of answer to life’s secrets. Later, during a raging bushfire, Stan rescues Madeleine from the burning manor house, and Amy’s fantasy crumbles when she sees her idol, her hair burned away, kneeling and retching on the grass.
World War I begins soon after the great fire, and Stan enlists in the army. With Stan away, Amy depends on an elderly German man to help her with the farmwork. The neighbors soon force him to leave, however, because of their hatred for all Germans.
After Stan returns from the battlefields of France, he once more works his farm while his wife carries out her domestic duties faithfully and his children grow into adults. Amy engages in a brief sexual affair with a traveling salesman; Stan knows intuitively that his wife has been unfaithful, but the infatuation passes. Stan and Amy’s son, Ray, becomes apprenticed to a saddle maker but decides to leave his old life behind; he wanders across Australia, spends time in prison, and eventually settles in Sydney, where he continues his criminal ways. His sister, Thelma, attends business college in Sydney, goes to work in a lawyers’ office, and marries one of the lawyers. Through this marriage, she achieves her dream of living a sophisticated and cultured life, free at last from the dreary farm.
Life continues for Stan and Amy on the farm. They follow a pattern of milking the cows, cooking and eating, sleeping and awakening, dreaming and longing. Amy becomes fatter in her old age, and Stan appears to shrivel. As the years go by, the outside world encroaches more and more on their lives. Their daughter’s marriage brings the Parkers into closer contact with Sydney; for the first time in their lives they spend a week in a hotel in the city, where they also attend a stage play. Sydney claims the body of their son Ray, whose life of crime ends with his murder.
The land around the Parker farm, all unsettled in the family’s early years, evolves into a suburb. Developers subdivide the neighboring farmland into lots for homes that eventually surround the Parkers’ old house, which by this time is almost entirely obscured from view by the plants and trees Amy has planted over half a century. An awareness of mortality enters their lives, first through their son’s murder, then through the death from cancer of Amy’s longtime friend Mrs. O’Dowd. Finally Stan dies, quickly and simply, in the garden he had carved from the wilderness, with Amy at his side.