Skip to Main Content

Ben Ball acquires new book from Don Watson for Scribner Australia

Scribner Australia and Scribner UK are delighted to announce the acquisition of Don Watson’s The Passion of Private White. This will be Watson's first major new work since the bestselling The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia, which won ‘Book of the Year’ at the NSW Premier’s Awards and the Indies Awards.


The Passion of Private White describes the meeting of two worlds: the world of the fiercely driven biologist and anthropologist Neville White, and the world of the hunter-gatherer clans of remote northern Australia he studied and lived with. As White tried to understand the world on the other side of the vast cultural divide, he was also trying to transcend the mental scars he suffered on the battlefields of Vietnam. The clans had their own injuries to deal with, as they tried to adapt to modernity, live down their losses and yet hold onto their ancient lands, customs, laws and language.


Over five decades, White mapped in astonishing detail the culture and history of the Yolngu clans at Donydji in north-east Arnhem Land. As he recorded the clans' relationship with the land and their often violent pre- and post-European history, he became not only a repository of their traditional knowledge, but a part of their world, an active, essential participant in the old and new. The student became a sage. He was their voice and protector in the struggle to survive when everything — from the ambitions of mining companies and a zombie bureaucracy, to feuds, sorcery and magic, despair and dysfunction — conspired to destroy them.


White’s extraordinary anthropological work created a unique record of a human society and its cosmology. His epic philanthropy offers rare and intimate insights into not only the relationship between colonizer and colonized, but the mind of the victims and the motives of an altruist.


And the fifty-year endeavour served another purpose. For White and the members of his old platoon he took there, Donydji became a kind of therapy for the psychic wounds of Vietnam. While for the clans, from the old warriors to the children, their fanatical benefactor offered a few rays of meaning and hope. There was no cure in this meeting of two worlds, both suffering their own form of PTSD. But there was survival.


This is a miniature epic of human adaptation, suffering and resilience, an astonishing window into both our recent and our deep history - indeed into the human condition itself.


Ben Ball, Publishing Director of Scribner Australia, says: ‘I'm delighted to work with Don again, especially on a book as significant as this one. It’s been fifty years in the making, and it gives us one of the most vivid, complex, intriguing and powerful portraits of our national trauma we’ve yet read. The Passion of Private White will be a landmark work in our understanding of our past and our deepest communal injury.’


Chris White, Editorial Director of Scribner says: ‘Don has long been considered one of the great Australian writers and I’m honoured that he has agreed to make Scribner his home in the UK. This is the most extraordinary book. I was hooked from the first page, marvelling at Don’s ability to dig beneath the surface and expose truths about our shared humanity. I can’t wait for readers to have the opportunity to discover it for themselves.’


The Passion of Private White will be published in late 2021.



For more information contact: