‘The Winter Road’ by Kate Holden

2021, 336 p

When I think of a ranger being killed, my mind skips immediately to Kenya and those brave, short, sinewy green-clad men of the Kenya Wildlife Service. The idea of a ranger being killed in Australia is so jarring that it is immediately memorable, and that’s the way it was for Kate Holden when Glen Turner was shot in Talga Lane, Croppa Creek, near Moree in 2014. His murderer, Ian Turnbull, aged 79 died in prison of heart attack, after being sentenced to 35 years imprisonment.

This book is quite a change from Kate Holden’s previous books: the first, In My Skin a wonderful memoir of heroin addiction and sex work; the second The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days a follow-up autobiography. Here she shuttles between reportage and reflection on a real-life crime which extends beyond a cold dirt road in Croppa Creek to a broader meditation on land, legacy and its meaning not just for Ian Turnbull and Glen Turner, but for both black and white Australians more generally.

We know that Glen Turner dies because she tells us, in the short prologue. The book then divides into three sections: Trespass, Murder and Inheritance. There is a chronological progress through the crime – lead-up, crime, and consequences- but the chapters themselves interweave a range of themes. Take Chapter Two, for example. It starts with a description of the Brigalow Belt that extends between Townsville and mid-NSW, the qualities of Brigalow Acacia harpohylla, the story of wheat in Australia, land-clearing legislation, clashes between Ian Turnbull and the Office of Environment and Heritage, land-clearing around Moree, and interactions between Turner and Turnbull. There is observation, reportage of conversations that Holden has held with the main protagonists, and desktop research drawing on the work of ecologists and historians. This interweaving continues throughout the book but I, as reader, I always felt that she was in control of the narrative, moving it steadily forward.

The book starts with the theme of ‘Trespass’, and there are different types of trespass at work here. Ian Turnbull’s trespass against the environmental law of the land; his accusation that Glen Turner, as a representative of government, was trespassing against his rights as a land-owner; the original trespass of white settlement onto indigenous land.

The emotional heart of the book for me comes in part 2 ‘Murder’, where she takes a slow-motion view of the murder. Here, too, there is an interweaving between the physical murder of Glen Turner, and the ecological ‘murder’ of the brigalow through the voracious demand for agricultural land. The murder itself, with Glen Turner and his old colleague Robert Strange bailed up by the gun-wielding Ian Turnbull in their departmental ute, took between twenty and thirty minutes. Twenty to thirty minutes. I think of shoot-outs or physical fights which, however long they might appear to the protagonists, are over in minutes. The thought of this deliberate, drawn out, highly personal, game of cat and mouse at sunset on a lonely dirt road is chilling.

Part 3 ‘Inheritance’ looks at the fall-out from the murder, for Ian Turnbull and his family; for Glen Turner’s family; for Robert Strange and other government employees; for the broader Croppa Creek community. It has truly been a poisoned inheritance. It seemed to me at the start of the book that she was at pains to represent all sides fairly, or at least to acknowledge the validity of their viewpoint from their perspective. But in Part 3, especially with the passing of weakened environmental laws that rendered Glen Turner’s death completely futile, it seems that Holden cannot withhold her judgment any longer. This is not a weakness: on the contrary, it would be weakness to continue to stand on the sidelines after all the exhaustive research she has undertaken.

This is non-fiction writing at its best. It is founded in research, which has been integrated with observation, conversation and reflection. It travels much further than that dirt road at sunset, interrogating Western society’s relationship with land and what it means to ‘own’ property. It is a beautiful piece of work

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: purchased e-book

One response to “‘The Winter Road’ by Kate Holden

  1. I borrowed this from the library, but I soon realised that despite its merits, I didn’t want to read it. I already knew about the murder, and I could tell by her reportage that readers were not going to be spared the details.
    But yes, those weakened laws are a disgrace to the NSW government and the people who elected them.

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