The time has come, the walrus said,
for grown-up women to divest their childhood books
(apologies to Lewis Carroll for such clumsy paraphrasing).
Along with so many others in COVID lockdown, occupying themselves by cleaning and clearing, I eventually took a hard look at those books I have held on to for more than fifty years, and decided that some of them had to go.
Since the culling, the victims have sat in a pile on the bookshelf awaiting their fate, but after all, I can’t let go. I feel compelled to read them once more. And since I’ve had little else to blog about recently, I’ve decided to share them with you.
Earlier this year, Australia experienced unprecedented (if I never hear that word again, it will be too soon) bushfires. Now the west coast of USA is beset with wildfires, and already we in Australia are at the beginning of our season again.
Therefore, my first offering is ASH ROAD by Ivan Southall. Written in 1965 (my edition Puffin 1969), it is inspired by a massive January 1962 bushfire in the hills area on the outskirts of Melbourne, Victoria, which claimed the lives of 32 people. Southall writes from his first-hand experience of living there.
In his introduction, Southall stresses that the story and characters are fictional, but adds, “But the event upon which the story is based is not invented. When it started we all knew it had started, and when it ended we could not believe it.”
Three adolescent boys, having their first taste of independence, accidentally start the fire on a camping trip. The adults in the rural community of Ash Road are called to fire-fighting and first-aid duties, leaving at home their various children in what is considered a safe zone.
Children are at the centre of this story. When the fire unexpectedly reaches them, cutting off their escape route, they are forced to face the crisis with only each other and two old-timers.
It is a taught, action-packed story with undertones of coming-of-age, resilience, the harshness of rural life, and hints at issues that still plague us today, for example, how much back-burning should be done in preparation for the fire season.
Ash Road is written for children, but not in a childish manner, as you can see from this excerpt. In this scene, young school-girl Lorna has been up since before dawn, harvesting raspberries with her obstinate father, before the extreme heat ruins them all. His struggle to keep his farm viable suggests a subtle social divide with his neighbours who do not need to work their children quite as hard.
The book’s illustrations are by Clem Seale who was trained as a newspaper artist. In WWII he was a member of the Camouflage Unit, putting his artistic skills to use by devising ingenious ways to conceal men, weapons, installations, aircraft and machinery.
My copy has been pre-loved by many children, and is in tattered condition. Our local Lifeline Australia, one of this country’s leading charities, have a Big Book Fair twice a year, and I can’t make up my mind whether to include it in their box on account of it.
Perhaps, though, it still has a role in OUR social history. How many books printed today would dare advertise, “For readers over ten, especially boys“.