Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Garry Disher, The Divine Wind (1998)

Garry Disher’s The Divine Wind (1998) is a historical novel aimed at a teenage audience.  On the surface, it is a coming-of-age story that centres on the infatuation and romance between Hart, an Anglo-Australian, and Mitsy, a Japanese-Australian, set in the cosmopolitan pearl fishing town of Broome in the north of Western Australia during the Second World War.   At another level, Disher’s novel provides an interpretation of Australian history and society during the 1940s that reflects the historical revisionism of the 1990s through which Australian history was reinterpreted from the perspective of the ideology of the politically correct Left. 

Consequently conflicts in Broome’s society are depicted as tending to cluster around divisions of race, ethnicity, class, and gender, with the issue of racism receiving the most attention by Disher.  He presents Australian society as predominantly racist, especially in its treatment of Asians and Aborigines. 

The characters whom Disher invites his audience to view critically exhibit racist tendencies or espouse racist values or, in the case of the magistrate, articulate an elaborate racist ideology that encompasses Nazi-style eugenics. 

By contrast, the characters that Disher invites his audience to admire exhibit racial tolerance and value cosmopolitanism, as well as show an appreciation of the Japanese or Aboriginal minorities that are the targets of racism.

Multicultural values are promoted and celebrated in the novel, such as the depiction of the Australian culture being enriched by ethnic cultures, such as by Japanese cuisine.  The promotion and celebration of multicultural values is also evident in the novel’s depiction of young people finding love across racial and ethnic barriers, as is the case regarding Hart and Mitsy.  The novel also makes a case for the need to exhibit cross-cultural sensitivity, as when Hart did not understand that the Japanese did not appreciate the good intentions behind the compensation payment following the death of Zeke in a workplace accident.  In addition, British migrants, like Hart’s mother Ida, are depicted as less suited to settle in Australia than Asians. 

A feminist sensibility also informs the novel, with the character Mitsy reflecting values of which feminists would approve.  Mitsy is far from being a domesticated, subservient woman who is valued solely on her looks and her relationships with men.  She is an independent, forthright career woman (pursuing nursing).  She makes her own choices regarding men, juggling two suitors throughout most of the novel.  Mitsy even becomes a political activist who fights for the rights of her people, which is a very worthy role in the eyes of the politically correct who regard political activism as the measure of good citizenship. 

In regards to the novel’s treatment of class, the ruling class is depicted as dominated by whites, and the values of the ruling class are represented as the dominant values in society.  The members of the working class, who sell their labour to the ruling class, are vulnerable to the decisions of members of the ruling class.  These decisions, if made rashly or on the basis of unworthy criteria like racial prejudice, can ruin people’s lives.  Hart’s father, the owner of six pearling boats, was feeling listless and depressed about his separation from his wife.  He decided to venture out his fleet too early in the season when there was a risk of storms.  This bad decision cost Zeke, and several other employees, their lives.  Similarly, Derby, an Aboriginal stockman, receives no support from his employer when he is accused (it is later shown he was wrongly accused) of rape and attempted murder.  The station owner simply washes his hands of Derby, hiring a replacement in a fashion to indicate how workers, especially black workers, can be treated as dispensable commodities by their bosses. 

Pacifist sensibilities also inform Disher’s novel.  The story shows how war brings out the worst sides of people’s natures.  War exacerbates prejudice, entrenches unfounded suspicions, and these attitudes can divide a community and lead to acts of discrimination or even violence against a minority considered to constitute a threat.  Disher describes many indignities and cruelties inflicted on the tiny Japanese community in order to illustrate this unfortunate human tendency, from which even the novel’s anti-racist heroes (Hart and his father) are not totally immune. 

The novel also puts faith in the young as agents of progressive social change.  This attitude is a reflection of Disher being a ‘baby boomer’, a member of the generation born between 1945 and 1965, many of whom were politicised during the turbulent politics of the 1960s and 1970s that featured protests against the participation of the United States and Australia in the Vietnam War and the policy of conscription. 

This politicisation was more likely with members of this generation who studied the Humanities at university at this time, as Disher did.  Many of them adopted values drawn from the New Left and hippy counter-culture, values that later became known as those of the politically correct Left.  Disher, reflecting the spirit of the times when he came of age, depicts progressive politics as involving a struggle between what he would regard as the enlightened, progressive younger generation against the unenlightened, reactionary older generation.  This is evident in the novel in the disputes between Jamie and his racist father, although Jamie is not immune from all racist sentiments.  It is also evident in Mitsy’s political activism and in Hart’s anti-racist values and sentiments. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: The Divine Wind meaning, The Divine Wind themes, The Divine Wind analysis, The Divine Wind notes