Lionel Shriver (US born, now based in the UK) is a controversial author. She picks up on contemporary social themes and preoccupations and interrogates them with razor sharp wit, in the process holding up a mirror that reflects modern society back to itself, mostly with less than flattering results.
Kay Wilkinson and her husband Cyril are middle class Londoners with respected careers in the NHS – she as a nurse and he a doctor. When in their fifties, she and her husband are both appalled at the possibility that they will suffer from dementia (as both Kay’s parents did before they died), or become disabled by a stroke or another debilitating health condition. So they make a pact that when they have both turned eighty they will suicide together. In the discussion leading to this decision, Kay says:
Everyone thinks they’re the exception. Everyone looks at what happens to old people and vows that it will never happen to them… They value quality of life. Somehow they’ll do something so their ageing will proceed with dignity... Then it turns out that, lo and behold, they’re exactly like everyone else! And they fall apart like everyone else, and finish out the miserable end of their lives like everyone else…
Should we stay or should we go p12-13
Okay, so some of these arguments touch on tender points for me just now. My mother is 92 and suffers from dementia and several other long term illnesses, and there have been plenty of times when my best wish for her is to close her eyes peacefully in bed and not wake again. Also, I have had discussions with friends and family about voluntary assisted dying which sounded very like another of the arguments put forward in the novel, this one by Cyril:
You said everyone imagines they’re exceptions and they’ll surely arrange an early and merciful exit before submitting to the intolerable, And then they do submit to the intolerable. That’s because, in order to retain agency over your own end of life, you have to be willing to give up some small portion of it that’s not particularly rubbish. Otherwise, you go downhill, doctors and relatives take over, and you’re apt to lose the very part of yourself that makes judgements and takes action. We have a very narrow window in which to exercise control.
Should we stay or should we go p30
So, the couple seem united and sure of their decision. And then, as the book cover blurb says: they turn eighty.
What follows is a twisting, circular, whirlwind of a time travel novel which explores and expounds on multiple final outcomes for Kay and Cyril, and indeed the whole nation and humanity more generally. The scenarios played out are by turns horrific, fanciful, eccentric, far-fetched, almost believable, idealistic or depressing. Scenes, sentences, characters appear and re-appear in different guises and surroundings as ‘sliding door moments’ take the characters one way and then another. It’s almost a grown-up ‘choose your own adventure’ story. I admit to feeling breathless a few times as I was carried away on the author’s imaginative tide of possible outcomes.
There are plenty of darkly funny moments, and it’s hard not to admire the wicked ways in which the author has made national and global preoccupations at the time of writing – Brexit, climate change, ageing populations, the Covid19 pandemic – symbolic of so much that Kay and Cyril are grappling with.
Should We Stay or Should We Go is a clever novel that skewers and taunts as much as it poses serious questions. There are laugh-out-loud moments but a word of warning: if you are already by nature or mood pessimistic, worried about your own future and old age, or dealing with themes of death and illness in your own life: be careful. This novel could either shake you up with a good belly laugh at its audacity, or leave you deeper in the gloom.
Should We Stay or Should We Go is published by The Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in June 2021. My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
Hands up if you sometimes think “We are rules by fools and knaves!” Or if you fret about the unhealthy role that alcohol seems to play in our Australian society. Me, too. It may be reassuring (or not) to know that this is not a new thing. In fact, according to this history by Matt Murphy, Australia’s very beginning as a British colony in the eighteenth century was inextricably linked to and shaped by alcohol, and the idiocy and corruption that so often accompanies it. One type of alcohol (rum) played a greater role than others, and this book deftly fills in a history of the beverage itself, how it first arrived on the shores of New South Wales, and what happened after.
Startling snippets of information are revealed: did you know, for example, that the First Fleet brought sufficient rum for seven years for each marine on board – but only enough food for two years. Rum was packed into the holds of those tall ships at the expense of tools, clothing and food supplies that the penal settlement would need in its early years.
Alcohol had an immediate, detrimental impact on Aboriginal people around Sydney and further afield; one that is still being felt today. Very quickly rum became a measure of currency and exploited by those in charge of the settlement – the NSW Marine Corps – which earned them the epitaph of ‘Rum Corps’.
We are introduced to some well-known historical figures: First Nations figures such as Bennelong; colonial Governors; convicts; emancipists and free settlers; those responsible for guiding the settlement all the way from England. Some of these characters are more notorious than others: John Macarthur, for example, is given a lot of attention due to his incessant meddling and blatantly corrupt activities, many of which involved the importation, sale and use of rum to further his own interests.
Murphy highlights the huge amount of energy expended on dispatches, petitions, orders about rum to and from authorities in NSW and London, canvassing the advantages and pitfalls of importing, distilling, trading, controlling and drinking the stuff. Well meaning but unsuccessful edicts regarding the control of alcohol consumption have echoes in our own times:
A further law proclaimed in June 1825 was aimed at publicans who condoned disorderly conduct on their premises or permitted patrons to become drunk. While the law pertaining to convicts was somewhat easy to maintain, the second one only meant that boozed-up barflies were being turfed out of hotels to drink in the street…Now there were more drunks on the street than ever before.
Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia p229
Is it just me, or could these attempts to curb the negative effects of alcohol consumption be the Georgian equivalents of Sydney’s lock-out laws and today’s ‘responsible service of alcohol’ guidelines?
Matt Murphy writes with humour and a fast pace, so this is an entertaining read as well as a sobering (no pun intended) look at our modern relationship with alcohol, and it is refreshing to re-visit some well-known people and events from history through the prism of one substance or object – in this case, the bottom of a rum bottle.
Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2021. My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the strap line for this new novel by Australian author Pamela Hart, is a beauty: ‘Renovations are hell – and that’s before you find a body beneath the floorboards.’
It neatly ties in two irresistible motifs for many readers: a who-done-it mystery and real estate / renovations – the last still endlessly fascinating for residents of Sydney, which is where the story is set.
Ms Hart is the author of many novels for children and adults covering several genres, including historical fiction, fantasy and non-fiction. This is her first foray into contemporary crime and I look forward to reading more about Poppy McGowan, who is an engaging, wryly humoured heroine with an interesting job (researcher for kids’ programs with ABC TV). Digging Up Dirt the first of what promises to be a series featuring Poppy.
She owns the house in Sydney’s inner west which is undergoing renovations at the start of the novel. To begin with she is dealing with a possible heritage order, due to the discovery of animal bones of potential historical significance, which has brought building work to a halt. Poppy’s previous job was in a museum so she is appropriately respectful of heritage issues… but she’s also worried that her renovations might be put on hold indefinitely while investigations into the bones continue.
Those concerns are compounded the following day, though, as investigations of altogether another kind are required – a murder enquiry, after the body of the archaeologist brought in to look at the bones is discovered in the same pit where the animal bones were discovered. Poppy begins her own bit of investigating, keen to see the matter brought to a close quickly so that her little house can be lived in sooner rather than later.
Political and religious organisations are involved because the murdered woman had been vying for pre-selection as a candidate for the Australian Family Party, a right-wing conservative organisation with strong ties to the Radiant Joy Church (possibly a thinly disguised version of an evangelical church frequented by a certain prime minister?) As Poppy digs deeper she realises that more than one person who knew the victim had a motive for wanting her gone.
Digging Up Dirt is essentially a light read, with elements of romantic comedy in the mix, though it does touch on some serious topics such as homophobia, sexism and the theft of Indigenous cultural materials. Poppy is smart and also acerbic at times, which makes for some apt barbs in the direction of politicians, and entitled, white, conservative and prosperous men – and women.
The great thing about sexism is that men who think women are stupider than they are truly believe it. So they are very, very reluctant to acknowledge that a woman may not be stupid. Thus far, I’d played to their expectations of a young woman who wasn’t really a reporter, and their own mindset predisposed them to believe I wasn’t a threat.
Digging Up Dirt p147
Sydney based readers will enjoy the strong sense of the city’s environs invoked. I enjoyed reading about Poppy and can visualise this story made into a film or TV series. I’m sure I will be meeting Poppy again in the future.
Digging Up Dirt is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises in June 2021. My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
Xander is 15, a student at a Sydney high school. He lives with his Mum and his Nanna, who is sick with cancer. Xander’s Dad died of cancer and he wants to do whatever he can to save Nanna, and making lists helps him with anxiety and coping with difficult situations, so he decides to write a list of 100 Remarkable Feats and then achieve them all.
Xander experiences and sees the world and other people differently than some, and the author has skilfully and sympathetically given readers a ‘Xander view’ of events, allowing us to understand that being neurodiverse is only a problem because it’s thought of as such. Little snippets of his learning pop up as well, such as how to make small talk, how to tell the difference between people being rude and being reserved, how to ‘read between the lines’ of interpersonal communication, and what an idiom such as ‘read between the lines’ actually means.
The narrative is peppered with lists that Xander makes to help him cope with new or challenging situations. He accesses his memories and emotions via lists as well: #1 Most Trusted Person; Worst Life Moments; Memory Lists; Top Ten Life Moments.
As he sets out to achieve his Remarkable Feats, he pushes his comfort zone out further than ever before; makes new friends; and tackles some very challenging scenarios. And he learns a great deal about life, family and friends on the way.
In a letter to actor Emma Watson (#2 Prettiest Girl in the World), Xander writes:
I also reckon it must have been incredibly hard for you being so famous so young, like you had to learn to be Hermoine Granger before learning to be yourself. That’s how I feel about being a teenager, like I’m always trying to be someone I’m expected to be rather than myself. I think that’s why I’ve had such a hard time fitting in.
100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze p103
As well as Xander’s experiences, the story touches on challenges that affect others: eating disorders, childhood illness, agoraphobia, bullying, among others. Yet it’s a quirky and uplifting tale in which the reader will cheers for Xander as he progresses through his Remarkable Feats.This novel will help teens and young adult readers to understand a little more about neurodiversity, and that can only be a positive thing.
100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2021. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
This is the twenty third and final post in the Travels with my mother series. If you’ve not read the earlier posts you may wish to go to the first one as it gives the context for the series.
Thank you to all who have been following along on with Mum and I in the last years of her life. Her travel story came to a close a week ago when she died on Saturday evening. She had lived for 92 years. I think the best way to complete her story and pay tribute to the long and remarkable journey she had taken, is to post the eulogy I gave at her funeral yesterday (Friday 4 June 2021).
Here it is:
Doreen was born in March 1929, on the precipice of the Great Depression. She was the eldest of three children born to Bertha and Harold.
One of Doreen’s earliest memories was perching on the back of a borrowed truck with her father; her two siblings in the front with their mother and the driver. They were being evicted—like so many Australians at that terrible time, they could no longer make their rent. They were offered a small cottage on a plot of land at controlled rent in a new ‘charity’ estate in Sydney’s southwest, now the suburb of Hammondville.
In 1940 Harold enlisted in the army. He lied about his age, dropping it by ten years. The desperate act of a father who needed a steady income to support his family. He was on a troop ship from Palestine to Singapore when news of Singapore’s fall to the Japanese shocked the world. His ship was sent to Sri Lanka instead, where he saw out the remainder of the war.
Tragically, his wife became very ill and died while Harold was away. Doreen, aged 13, and her two siblings were considered too young to manage on their own and the three children were split up to live with different relatives. Doreen took from these years a fierce sense of independence, a belief that being a girl or woman should not stop her from doing the things she needed to do, a longing for family life, and a steely determination to make the best of things.
Still in her teens, Doreen worked as a seamstress at a Surry Hills clothing factory, and moved in with workmate Norma , who was to become her closest and lifelong friend and her sister-in-law. She experienced a brief period of carefree youth: sewing her own frocks, dressing up for an occasional night out with her girlfriends, and beach picnics.
It was Norma who introduced her to Doug, the brother of the man Norma was engaged to marry.
Harold returned home from the war and Doreen, her brother and sister moved back to live with their father for a while. Doreen adored her father and they had a close bond.
When Doug and Doreen married in October 1951, she made her own dress. No ivory satin or bridal veils for Doreen: her wedding outfit was a knee length frock in pale blue with a matching hat. A modest outfit for a very modest wedding, but also I think, in line with Doreen’s personality: pushing a little against the norms and expectations for women at the time.
Doug and Doreen began married life with next to nothing. They moved to Bilpin for Doug to work at the service station there, with baby Karen and toddler Kris, renting an old workman’s cottage on Ghost Hill Road.
Doreen, raised in the suburbs, now learnt to live in the country, drive a car, and be a mother, essentially through determination and gritted teeth. She ran the little café next door—known then as ‘Midways’. I came along in 1960 and six years later, we moved to an orchard and farmhouse at ‘Glenara’, outside the village. Now Doreen was also an orchardist who baked apple pies, made jams and jellies, and sold produce at the roadside fruit shop. In her ‘spare’ time she knitted and sewed clothing for her family, participated in community events and her children’s schools. Life was busy.
For both Doug and Doreen, the little family they created became the all-important crux of life; the thing they worked for, struggled and sacrificed for. Neither had experienced stability in their own childhoods and they went all out to provide it for their daughters. Both had been denied a full education and it was important to them that we had that opportunity. They could rarely afford things that were new, not home-made or hand-me-down. But if any of us needed them, both Doreen and Doug were there. No lives go 100% to plan and through our ups and downs, our tragedies, disasters, joys and achievements, we all had reason to feel blessed to have those two as our parents.
Glenara was eventually sold and we moved to a new house, designed and built by Doug and Doreen, in the Bilpin village. This was the first new house that Doreen had ever lived in and she’d made sure to include mod-cons like a dishwasher and a second toilet. After years of washing dishes in the café and home, and an outside toilet, I think she was entitled, don’t you?
Doreen was now ‘retired’, which meant that she had more time for community events and also a chance to pursue her own interests. She took up pottery and later, lawn bowling. In typical Doreen style, she threw herself into such ventures wholeheartedly. She had a stellar bowling career, winning championships, becoming club President at Richmond, coach, umpire and selector.
Her interest in genealogy, at a time before anything was on line, resulted in some fantastic work on our family history, tracing back to six convicts (and some free settlers) in colonial times.
During those years she also enjoyed some travel, something her keen interest in history and geography suited her to. She and Doug went on a cruise to Fiji and Vanuatu, visited north Queensland and the Barrier Reef, and made a trip by Greyhound Bus across the western parts of the USA and Canada a few years after that. She travelled the Murray River on a paddleboat, took the ferry to Tasmania and camper-vanned through much of NSW. They took their camper to a hippie community in the bush near Glen Innes, to visit Karen who lived there in the 1980’s. When I lived for a short time on a remote island in the Torres Strait in far north Queensland, Mum and Dad began making plans to visit me there.
She loved reading and we have always been grateful that our parents passed on their love and respect for books to us. A sounding board for ideas or problems big or small, Mum was my ‘go-to’ person to share news, to fine-tune plans, and to swap stories. She was also an avid movie goer; I have very fond memories of movie outings and watching classic movies together on TV, especially seeing her all-time favourite movie, Gone with the Wind, at least several times together. We enjoyed many drama productions at the Joan in Penrith. These are all precious memories.
Tragedy struck in 1994 when Karen was diagnosed with an untreatable brain cancer, and died three months later, aged 39. It was a shocking event that hit hard; Doreen coped by providing as much physical help and support as she could to her daughter and to Karen’s carers, and being the family bedrock. We stayed in a Brisbane apartment during the two weeks that Karen was in hospital there; I remember one night getting up and finding Mum, sitting in the lounge room, trying to smother her sobs with a pillow so as not to wake anyone.
She was again a refuge of warmth and care when I landed on their doorstep, essentially homeless and penniless, with baby Dakathirr in my arms. We stayed with them for eighteen months and experienced the no-nonsense practical and emotional support that Doreen gave so generously.
Doreen was an affectionate grandmother to her two grandsons, Alex and Dux. She loved her verbal spars with Andy, her son-in-law, and always liked to believe she had the upper hand. She became step-grandmother to David and Connor, and later Great grandmother to Liam and Aubrey.
As Doug’s health began to fail, Doreen took on the role of his carer. After his death in 2016, her activities and horizons became increasingly limited by deteriorating eyesight, ongoing mobility problems and dementia. Thankfully, she was still delighted when one of us walked through the door of her nursing home room.
As many mothers do, Doreen had some oft-quoted aphorisms to guide her daughters through life. The one I most remember (and try to live by, not always successfully) is:
Edith Piaf’s famous song, No Regrets, sums up Doreen’s attitude to life perfectly.
We can forget, as we watch our parents age and witness the physical and mental ravages that time can inflict, that they were once robust young people with full lives ahead of them. Their joys, passions and talents can fade over time and become invisible.
Looking back over old photos, I was reminded of Mum’s fun-loving nature: she loved to dress up for events with her bowling club, for example; loved an occasional weekend away at a bowling competition with ‘the girls’; loved being at the beach with her grandsons on precious family holidays. She had as much fun on our day in Disneyland as I did. She and Dad taught us how to play cards and board games and it was an enduring pleasure of our times together to get out the Canasta cards or Pictionary game – a tradition which continued on with the grandkids.
She was also someone who did not always ‘toe the line’: as evidenced by some of her less conventional choices and her determination that her daughters would have every opportunity in life, including ones that had been denied her due to poverty, family circumstance, or the fact that she was female.
Doreen’s early life was hard, and the untimely death of her own mother meant that she entered married life and motherhood with little support and guidance. She learnt it all as she went along. None of that stopped her from being a committed, energetic mother, active in her girls’ lives and education. As a grandmother she carried on in the same vein, until frailty and infirmity got in the way.
I like to think that Doreen has been a role model for me in my own life, and my experience of motherhood and now, grandmother -hood. It’s certainly something that I have aimed for.
I am heartbroken that we have lost Doreen from our lives. Mixed with the sorrow is the knowledge that her last years were not happy or easy ones and that she no longer has to endure the difficulties of old age.
I believe that those who die are never really gone if we remember them.
I’d like us all to remember Doreen as she was before her illness: determined, smart, energetic and loving. It’s the best tribute we can pay to her.
This is the twenty-second in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
This week my sister and I made the decision to disconnect Mum’s landline in her nursing home. Since moving into her new room there, she has forgotten how to answer the phone, or perhaps no longer registers the ringing as an incoming call. On top of that, she is rarely positioned in her chair or bed within easy reach of the handset. Paying $35 a month for a service that is no longer being used seemed wasteful and pointless. So, I closed the account and the line was disconnected.
For some years now, I have spoken to my mother as close to every day as was possible: either in person when I visited, or a morning phone call. In the last couple of years the calls had by necessity got shorter: Mum’s span of attention on the phone diminished, as did her inclination to chat on. Prior to that, our conversations could be amusing, bewildering, or sad, depending on her mood on the day, or which particular fanciful byway her mind took us down.
I will admit that some days, making the call was harder than others. I’d have to search for a topic of conversation: when an elderly person’s world has shrunk to the four walls of a room and they can no longer remember what happened an hour ago, this is understandable. I would try to talk about things I was doing, about the kids and grandkids – Covid lockdowns last year made that harder, too, because even for younger and healthier people, physical worlds shrank somewhat. And at times I’d be seized by a sense of guilt: was it fair for me to chat on about my activities, my life, when my mother had so little in her own? Irrational, I know, but still.
Yet, over the past few days since the disconnection of Mum’s phone, I’ve gone to make my customary call and stopped short, remembering that it was no longer a possibility. I’ve had moments of thinking, That’s something I can talk to Mum about when I call her, only to remember: no phone line.
So, if there’s someone in your world with whom you have not connected for a while – parent, sibling, aunt or uncle, old friend or new – maybe it’s time to reconnect? Pick up the phone, write a letter or an email, send a WhatsApp or Facebook message. Not only do we not know what a difference that contact can make in someone’s life, or in our own; we can absolutely never know when it will no longer be an option. Or indeed, what we’ll miss. Go on, make the call!
I had not known that Jews in Poland wore a blue star, rather than yellow, under the Nazi regime. Nor did I know the horrifying fact that some Jews survived detection by living underground – in the city sewer tunnels, along with the filth, the damp and the rats. These were two new things I learnt as a result of reading Pam Jenoff’s The Woman with the Blue Star.
Set in Krakow in 1942, the novel tells the story of two young women – Sadie, an eighteen year old Jewish girl who escapes the Nazis and Polish police during their ‘liquidation’ of the Ghetto, and Ella, who is from an affluent Polish family. Ella lives with her hated stepmother in relative comfort (in large part due to her stepmother’s consorting with German men.) Ella spots Sadie’s face one morning through a sewer grate and comes to realise that Sadie (and others) are in hiding down there.
Ella sets out to help in whatever ways she can – bringing food to begin with – but the stakes for them both get much higher as the war progresses and the level of danger increases.
The author set the story in Krakow, though it was the sewers in the Polish city of Lvov in which Jewish people actually lived and survived the war. It’s almost beyond belief that anyone could survive a day or a week in such an unhealthy and putrid environment. Then again, much of what happened in European cities, towns, and Nazi concentration camps during WWII is beyond belief.
I found that I didn’t warm to the characters in The Woman With the Blue Star as much as I might have wished; however the novel’s drama swept me along with it and I am always fascinated by stories that reveal things about this period of history.
The Woman With the Blue Star is published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2021. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
At the risk of giving away my age, I can safely say that when I finished high school, the end-of-school phenomena known in Australia as ‘schoolies week’ did not exist. My cohorts and I celebrated the completion of our formal school years by outings to the local public pool and a restaurant dinner. Not with youth hostel (or five star) accommodation at a resort, youth oriented all night parties, dances and concerts, and all the other accoutrements that make up many a young Australian’s schoolies week.
A cross between a let-your-hair-down relief from the pressures of final school studies and exams, and a first step into the adult world without parental supervision, schoolies week is something that many young people dream of (and their parents have nightmares about).
Can’t Say it Went to Plan is a new young adult (YA) novel which follows the schoolies experience of three very different young people and their friends and family. Zoe, Samira and Dahlia have each planned the perfect schoolies week, but of course they also bring with them their individual concerns and preoccupations: anxiety and grief, parental expectations and sibling rivalry, boyfriend troubles, worries about their next steps in life. With alternating viewpoints, the author captures these perfectly along with the language and internal dialogue of this age group.
I cringed a lot reading this novel in recognition of the all-consuming self centredness of many youngsters and also, winced at the inevitable mistakes made by each of the three protagonists as they navigate their way through the ups and downs of a week in which plans are turned upside down. Parents may well turn green reading some of what they get up to, but in the end, the mistakes are not too disastrous and each character learns from their experiences.
Ultimately the novel is about what is really important: friendships and family, courage, perseverance and hope. By the novel’s end, the three girls’ trajectories meet, if only briefly, and they are able to reflect on what they’ve learned from their schoolies weeks.
Can’t Say it Went to Plan is published in May 2021 by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
When I was a little girl, I loved looking through my Nanna’s button collection. At one point she began to give my mother assorted buttons each time we visited; much later on I realised that Nanna knew she was dying of cancer and had begun divesting herself of objects. Perhaps they were special buttons, treasured for some memory they evoked of happier times. I’ll never know. Now I have my own modest button collection and I sometimes think of Nanna when I search through them to replace a missing shirt button.
The new story from award-winning Australian author Emily Rodda is all about buttons and the mysterious but kind woman who appears in Milly Dynes’ small village with her magical button collection.
Milly is in the midst of a spate of difficulties in her life, and meeting Eliza Vanda (or EV as she is known) and her companion Victor, takes her into a magical world in which she encounters witches, black jellybeans, a princess, a bewitched frog and a beautiful wedding dress.
It’s a gentle story with humour and compassion in equal parts, and allows younger readers to explore emotions such as sadness or anger in a safe context. Milly is a sweet and clever girl and EV and Victor quite complex characters; Milly quickly realises that things (and people) are not always entirely as they appear.
Eliza Vanda’s Button Box endows the humble button with a significance which I think is fully deserved, as I recall the pleasure I had in sorting through my Nanna’s button box all those years ago.
Eliza Vanda’s Button Box is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2021. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
From Australia’s amazing Jackie French comes another book that tantalises with a gripping story while immersing readers in the sights, sounds, smells and figures from Australia’s past.
Night Ride into Danger is set in NSW’s Braidwood district in the 1870’s, the days of the iconic Cobb & Co coaches. In the first few paragraphs we are plunged into the world of young Jem and his widowed father, Paw, a skilled coach driver who takes Jem to ride beside him on the 14 hour journey from Braidwood to Goulburn.
We get a vivid sense of the coachmen’s work, the adventurousness as well as the hardships of his life, the way the coach looked, smelt and felt for the passengers who entrusted their lives to his care on the rutted, icy or flooded roads common at that time.
The passengers in this story – six of them – all have their reasons for choosing to take the faster but more dangerous night mail coach. Each of them has a different secret and the ways in which the secrets are gradually revealed make up the connecting spine of this story.
When Jem’s father is injured, Jem must take over as driver – a tall order for a youngster who has never driven a team of four horses at night on such a long journey. How Jem deals with this challenge and interacts with the six other people who travel with him, makes for an engaging tale.
The book includes many of the figures of Australian colonial legends: gold diggers, bushrangers, farmers, innkeepers and grooms. There are also women (often hidden in the annals of Australian folklore): dancers, cooks, farmers, as well as women travelling to a new country to be married, or giving birth in difficult circumstances. The author doesn’t avoid describing the racism inherent in white attitudes of the time, or the strictures of colonial society against Chinese immigrants, First Nations people, or unmarried mothers.
The characters are all active and engaging and the reader will cheer Jem on in his quest to arrive safely in time for both the mail and his passengers to meet the Goulburn train for Sydney.
Night Ride into Dangeris guaranteed to be enjoyed by middle grade readers who like a mix of history, adventure and mystery.
Night Ride into Danger is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2021. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
This is the twenty-first in my series called Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
Dementia is sometimes referred to as ‘the long goodbye.’ It is an apt description for the drawn out grief someone experiences as their loved one transforms from an adult who is competent in all the business of life, to a dependent who needs help with the simplest of actions. This is the process of dying, spread out over months and years.
Thankfully, Mum still knows me when I walk into her room and say my name. The smile that appears on her face lights her whole room. It could light a city. Often it is accompanied by a shriek of joy; sometimes a tear or two. Then she settles back into her bed or recliner, grasping my hand. Of late, my visits are mainly about watching Mum as she dozes. I hold her hand or her arm. When I get up to fetch her a drink, or speak to a staff member, and once again put my hand on hers, she gives a faint smile and murmurs, ‘That’s better. Softer.’ I’m not entirely sure what she means (is my touch softer than the nurses’? or is she expressing pleasure at any touch?) It hardly matters. I just know she enjoys me touching her and that’s what I take from the interchange.
It’s painful – agonising – to observe Mum struggle to sip and swallow a mouthful of water. Some day she can barely hold her head up. But she is calmer now than she was in recent months. I imagine that her inner self is giving up the struggle, relaxing into her helplessness. She is not happy, I’m sure. But neither, I think, is she actually unhappy. She is floating on a sea of something akin to oblivion, small wavelets of time lapping at her, rousing her occasionally to connect with whoever enters her room or speaks to her.
The small expressions of joy at seeing someone she knows and loves have to be enough; indicators that my visits mean something. This morning, as I left her side, I kissed her forehead and told her,’I love you, Mum.’ She smiled back and I knew she was trying to say ‘I love you, too.’ I knew it; even though her speech is now impaired so much that getting even the simplest sentence out is a struggle. Her face, her smile, told me the rest.