||Allen & Unwin
||A & U Children
|Suitable for ages:
I received this in a pile of books from Allen & Unwin later in the year and picked it up last week when doing the X-mas reshuffle thing. It’s been a really enjoyable read and one I think would appeal to students both boys and girls in Middle School.
Set in a memorable year: the Sydney Harbour Bridge finally ‘met’ in the middle, Phar Lap wins the Melbourne Cup and Bradman scores 334 runs in the Test, the novel follows the trials and tribulations of young Joe Riley for a year of his sometimes tumultuous life.
Joe and his family live in the Glebe of the Depression, a ‘rough and tumble’ sort of neighbourhood (still is, last time I saw it!) and luckily, they make ends meet through various means. Dad runs an illegal betting shop, Mum takes in sewing and Joe sells fresh eggs from his uncle’s farm, has a paper round and is not averse to using some of Dad’s knowledge to rig the gambling on the local billy cart derby. He has a younger brother Kit and an older sister Noni and in general, apart from when Dad is on the grog and he cops a belting, life isn’t as dreadful as it is for others. Until, his parents decide after several brushes with authority, that they have saved enough money for Joe to go to boarding school.
Despite his protests, Joe is packed off across the harbour to St Bart’s, which turns out to be a pretty nasty place all round and when a predatory priest makes one wrong move too many towards Joe, he finds himself with a bloody broken nose and Joe is shipped off again, this time to the Farm, a reform school on the South Coast. At this point I was expecting more nastiness for Joe, but as it turned out, the Farm wasn’t that bad at all. In fact, Joe learns a lot about himself, new skills, working as a team and the satisfaction of physical labour. However, in the scheme of things this almost came as an anticlimax, but does prove his rite of passage. Joe returns home with a good report and will go to school locally after all.
The plot is not necessarily the strongest but it would keep, particularly boys, reading. I am thinking about using this in literature circles in Middle School this coming year – partnering it with The Sequin Star – Belinda Murrell. Both set in exactly the same period of time, with a great deal of historical information to absorb but one with the boy protagonist and one with the girl. My co-ed groups might like this approach I hope.
One thing I have to say is that I do NOT like the cover at all – it looks like a book for much younger readers and for this type of novel, I would have expected a much grittier design to engage the readers. I can’t see any of the teenage boys I know picking it up based on the jacket!
Allen & Unwin do have a link to teaching notes on the webpage but it wouldn’t work for me – but visit their website and try it out here