Ash Road by Ivan Southall

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.

COVER DESIGN: ELISABETH GRANT

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“.

28 thoughts on “Ash Road by Ivan Southall

  1. “For readers over ten, especially boys” agree with you nobody would dare make such a public declaration, but I think there are still plenty of people who think whole swathes of life and living is especially for boys. Mind you I notice that even in 1965 a woman was allowed to design the book cover. Literature and storytelling are essential for engaging youngsters to help them understand and sometimes warn them of the dark side of nature. Fire, flood and pestilence not just for boys! ☹️

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  2. The books sounds like it should be required reading.

    My area was in a Level 1 Evacuation status for a little over a week recently. We were packed and ready to go in case we went to Level 2. We were not going to wait for Level 3. Fortunately we are out of danger, for now, in my area. Blazes still rage around Oregon, and around the west. Fire season is not over.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John, aka Paol Soren comments he taught it in school, but I don’t recall it on my curriculum.
      I thought I saw on another person’s blog that you were in evacuation status. We’ve never had to do it personally, but my cousin, who lives “in the bush” evacuated twice in January – for a week each time. He and his partner lived in their campervan on a beach with hundreds of others doing the same. It was a scary and stressful time. I feel for you.

      Liked by 1 person

    • When my brother passed, he left me over 800, which, as I live in an apartment, needed to be rehome to loving families. I have books on my iPad, but haven’t yet accustomed to making it my go-to. I’ve got one sitting there from BorrowBox that I must get on to. By Australian indigenous writer Melissa Lukashenko, called Too Much Lip. One thing about eBooks, it is easy to enjoy writers from all around the world.

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  3. Funny, Gwen, I was only thinking a couple of days ago that we haven’t heard from you. I must admit that although I have and use my e library, i can’t part with my printed books. I can understand your tossing the hardbacks because they take up more space, but they last longer than paperbacks. I always found the spine cracking after a couple of reads. 🤭
    Interesting that the issue of back burning was a worry all those decades ago. I do so hope we’re better prepared this summer.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. We must be one of a kind Gwen,
    I’m still holding onto hard copy books that belonged to my Grandparents hoping one of my grandchildren will appreciate them in the future.

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    • When I returned from Europe in 1981, I discovered Mum had given all my books to the neighbour’s kids. I had to knock on their door and explain there had been a mistake. The family still had them in the cartons, so I don’t feel it was a hardship for them to return them to me. They were probably overwhelmed with where to start J

      Some of the books that will be culled are hardbacks, which I’d covered in plastic and are still in good condition.

      The 22 volume set of Dickens is in my will, LOL

      xxx

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      • Believe you just missed the West Coast fire season which came after your visit. This year is much, much worse in Oregon – not sure why but likely extreme wind mixed with lightning. We always have forest fires (part of the cycle) but this year is a nightmare. Lost track of the number of deaths as many small towns were totally destroyed – still finding bodies! 😦

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          • Books are precious. In the 1980s, I bought a set of leather bound Harvard Classics… There are 50 volumes, and it has almost all my favorite poets. They look the same as they did 35 years ago and are great for reading and reference. Have you heard of Book Bub? Great source for good reads and you can get them in many different forms.

            Liked by 1 person

          • We did not have TV so I’ve been a book worm since a young age; and I treasure my books. But! I’m happy that this lot should go on to other readers now.
            But most of what I’ve retained are classics, as well as a 22-volume set of Dickens.
            When he passed, my brother left me over 800 books, and I had to find loving homes for most of them.
            Thanks for introducing me to Book Bub.

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  5. I love the post, Gwen. I looked it up on Amazon and a hard copy sells for 801.77. An ebook is 7.00. He also won the Carnegie award for it in 1966.
    I think I would like the book seeing I am a boy over ten years old.
    On the other hand my sister might not. It would remind her of getting bawled out for eating most of the raspberries she picked.
    Can’t wait for your next keep-it-or not book.

    Liked by 1 person

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