Which novels are Australian high school English students studying?

This list is collected from online chats about children’s books. Comments are from teachers who have used these books in class in 2020.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas — American. Huge success with Years 9 and 10s. “Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.”

Beyond Belief by Dee White — marketed at readers over 10 years old but works with Year 10s. “Inspired by the true story of Muslims who saved the lives of Jewish children in the Second World War. In 1942, in the Grand Mosque in Paris, 11-year-old Ruben is hiding from the Nazis. Already thousands of Jewish children have disappeared, and Rubens parents are desperately trying to find his sister. Ruben must learn how to pass himself off as a Muslim, while he waits for the infamous Fox to help him get to Spain to be reunited with his family. One hint of Ruben’s true identity and he’ll be killed. So will the people trying to save him. But when the mosque is raided and the Fox doesn’t come, Ruben is forced to flee. Finding himself in the south of France, he discovers that he must adjust to a new reality, and to the startling revelation of the Fox’s true identity.”

Take Three Girls by Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell, Fiona Wood — Australian. Written by three different authors. “ADY – not the confident A-Lister she appears to be. KATE – brainy boarder taking risks to pursue the music she loves. CLEM – disenchanted swim-star losing her heart to the wrong boy. All are targeted by PSST, a toxic website that deals in gossip and lies. St Hilda’s antidote to the cyber-bullying? The Year 10 Wellness program. Nice try – but sometimes all it takes is three girls.”

The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon — Australian. “Subhi is a refugee. Born in an Australian permanent detention center after his mother and sister fled the violence of a distant homeland, Subhi has only ever known life behind the fences. But his world is far bigger than that—every night, the magical Night Sea from his mother’s stories brings him gifts, the faraway whales sing to him, and the birds tell their stories. And as he grows, his imagination threatens to burst beyond the limits of his containment. The most vivid story of all, however, is the one that arrives one night in the form of Jimmie—a scruffy, impatient girl who appears on the other side of the wire fence and brings with her a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it herself, she relies on Subhi to unravel her family’s love songs and tragedies. Subhi and Jimmie might both find comfort—and maybe even freedom—as their tales unfold. But not until each has been braver than ever before.”

Detention by Tristan Bancks — Australian. Year 7. “Sima and her family are pressed to the rough, cold ground among fifty others. They lie next to the tall fence designed to keep them in. The wires are cut one by one. When they make their escape, a guard raises the alarm. Shouting, smoke bombs, people tackled to the ground. In the chaos Sima loses her parents. Dad told her to run, so she does, hiding in a school and triggering a lockdown. A boy, Dan, finds her hiding in the toilet block. What should he do? Help her? Dob her in? She’s breaking the law, but is it right to lock kids up? And if he helps, should Sima trust him? Or run?”

When Michael Met Mina by Randa Abdel-Fattah — Australian. Deals with serious topics without suicide, self-harm and sexual assault. An uplifting read. (Themes: race, class, gender, refugees, the role of media). Year 10. “When Michael meets Mina, they are at a rally for refugees – standing on opposite sides. Mina fled Afghanistan with her mother via a refugee camp, a leaky boat and a detention centre. Michael’s parents have founded a new political party called Aussie Values.”

Lion: a Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley — Australian. Comes in movie, adult, younger reader and picture book versions. “Can you imagine being lost and not finding your way home again?Saroo Brierley became lost on a train in India at the age of five. Not knowing the name of his family or where he was from, he survived for weeks on the streets of Kolkata, before being taken into an orphanage and adopted by a family in Australia.Despite being happy in his new home, Saroo always wondered about his origins. He spent hours staring at the map of India on his bedroom wall. He pored over satellite images on Google Earth seeking out landmarks he recognised. And one day, after years of searching, he miraculously found what he was looking for.Then he set off on a journey back to India to see if he could find his mother.This inspirational true story of survival and triumph against incredible odds is now a major motion picture starring Dev Patel, David Wenham and Nicole Kidman.This edition has been specially edited for younger readers who want to discover Saroo’s extraordinary story for themselves.”

When The Ground Is Hard by Malla Nunn — Australian. “Edgar Award nominee stuns in this heartrending tale set in a Swaziland boarding school where two girls of different castes bond over a shared copy of Jane Eyre. Adele Joubert loves being one of the popular girls at Keziah Christian Academy. She knows the upcoming semester at school is going to be great with her best friend Delia at her side. Then Delia dumps her for a new girl with more money, and Adele is forced to share a room with Lottie, the school pariah, who doesn’t pray and defies teachers’ orders. But as they share a copy of Jane Eyre, Lottie’s gruff exterior and honesty grow on Adele, and Lottie learns to be a little sweeter. Together, they take on bullies and protect each other from the vindictive and prejudiced teachers. Then a boy goes missing on campus and Adele and Lottie must rely on each other to solve the mystery and maybe learn the true meaning of friendship.”

Lost Souls Atlas by Zana Fraillon — Australian. “A boy awakens in the Afterlife, with a pocketful of vague memories, a key, a raven, and a mysterious Atlas to guide him as he sets out to piece together the mystery of his final moments”.

Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley — Australian. Not younger than Year 10 because of the ‘kissing bits’. “In this beautiful love story from the author of “Graffiti Moon, ” two teens find their way back to each other in a bookstore full of secrets and crushes, grief and hope–and letters hidden between the pages.”

Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller — Indigenous Australian with paranormal elements. ” Stacey and Laney are twins – mirror images of each other – and yet they’re as different as the sun and moon. Stacey works hard at school, determined to get out of their small town. Laney skips school and sneaks out of the house to meet her boyfriend. But when Laney disappears one night, Stacey can’t believe she’s just run off without telling her. As the days pass and Laney doesn’t return, Stacey starts dreaming of her twin. The dreams are dark and terrifying, difficult to understand and hard to shake, but at least they tell Stacey one key thing – Laney is alive. It’s hard for Stacey to know what’s real and what’s imagined and even harder to know who to trust. All she knows for sure is that Laney needs her help. Stacey is the only one who can find her sister. Will she find her in time?”

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke — Afro-Caribbean Australian. Studied with Year 12s. Might work with younger years. “In this collection of award-winning stories, Melbourne writer Maxine Beneba Clarke has given a voice to the disenfranchised, the lost, the downtrodden and the mistreated. It will challenge you, it will have you by the heartstrings.”

Catching Teller Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina — Year 10. Australian. “An extraordinary thriller, told from the perspective of two Aboriginal protagonists, which weaves together themes of grief, colonial history, violence, love and family. Nothing’s been the same for Beth Teller since she died. Her dad, a detective, is the only one who can see and hear her, and he’s drowning in grief. Only a suspected murder, and a mystery to solve, might save them both. And they have a potential witness: Isobel Catching. Aboriginal by birth, like Beth, she seems lost and isolated in the world. But as the two get closer, Isobel’s strange tale of glass-eyed monsters and stolen colours will intertwine with Beth’s investigation – and reveal something dark and terrible at the heart of this Australian town.”

Parvana by Deborah Ellis — Comes in a graphic novel. “There are many types of battle in Afghanistan. Imagine living in a country where women and girls are not allowed to leave the house without a man. Imagine having to wear clothes that cover every part of your body, including your face, whenever you go out. This is the life of Parvana, a young girl growing up in Afghanistan under the control of an extreme religious military group. When soldiers burst into her home and drag her father off to prison, Parvana is forced to take responsibility for her whole family, dressing as a boy to make a living in the marketplace of Kabul, risking her life in the dangerous and volatile city. By turns exciting and touching, Parvana is a story of courage in the face of overwhelming fear and repression.”

The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary L. Blackwood — Good introduction to a Shakespeare unit. Short. “Widge is an orphan with a rare talent for shorthand. His fearsome master has just one demand: steal Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet”–or else. Widge has no choice but to follow orders, so he works his way into the heart of the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s players perform. As full of twists and turns as a London alleyway, this entertaining novel is rich in period details, colorful characters, villainy, and drama.”

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins — is still being taught. There’s plenty of teaching material out there on this.

A Long Walk To Water by Linda Sue Park — Aimed at Year 7 but younger kids tend to love it. “In 1985, southern Sudan is ravaged by war. Rebels and government forces battle for control, with ordinary people — people like the boy, Salva Dut — caught in the middle. When Salva’s village is attacked, he must embark on a harrowing journey that will propel him through horror and heartbreak, across a harsh desert, and into a strange new life.”

John Brown, Rose and The Midnight Cat (1979)

Akseli-Gallen-Kallela-Illustration-for-Kalevala-Lemminkäinens-Mother-1897-death-swan-sickness

John Brown and the Midnight Cat is a classic Australian picture book written by Jenny Wagner and illustrated by Ron Brooks. This story is an excellent example of how a story for children can mean something completely different — and disturbing — for adults. This children’s story gives me chills.

As you read, pay special attention to the pictures in this one, which tell a very different story. Recall everything you’ve ever absorbed about universal symbols. Pay attention also to the way vertical lines and framing is used to separate character from each other, also separating inside from outside.

Continue reading “John Brown, Rose and The Midnight Cat (1979)”

Dead Calm Film Study

Dead Calm movie poster landscape

Sometimes horror movies are even more terrifying when read metaphorically. In Dead Calm, the story of a husband and wife at sea with a murderous intruder is bad enough, but what if the murderer doesn’t exist?

Dead Calm is a well-executed but outdated psychological horror, adapted in 1989 for film from a 1963 novel by the same name by America Charles K. Williams (1909 – 1975).

Continue reading “Dead Calm Film Study”

Bluey Australian TV Show Storytelling

Bluey Family

Remember that time an episode of British cartoon Peppa Pig was taken off air in Australia? It was the episode which taught kids that spiders aren’t scary. Not a lesson Aussie kids need to learn.

Well, fast forward a few years and Australian kids now have their own cartoon series reminiscent of Peppa Pig. Bluey is made at Ludo Studio in Brisbane. There are currently about 60 people working on the show.



I no longer have a little kid in the house, but we both checked out Bluey on ABC iView, because a Twitter friend recommended it thusly:

https://twitter.com/DevinMadson/status/1219892040718176257

Bluey is getting a 9.5/10 rating on IMDb and was nominated for an Emmy. Bluey is marvellous.

First, why does Bluey remind me of Peppa Pig? The nuclear family set-up is similar. Instead of pigs the family are dogs. Bluey is an Australian blue heeler, making this a specifically Australian show, but not so Australian that the series won’t garner an international audience. (Bluey could be any dog, because she is first and foremost a kid… a human child in an animal’s body.)

Turns out the Peppa Pig comparison is no coincidence. I subsequently learned Joe Brumm set out to make an Australian Peppa Pig.

The art style is similar. Look at how both shows deal with aerial perspective (hint: It’s in the colour of the outlines.)

Foregrounded characters have dark outlines. Background scenery is coloured in high key and outlined in a darker hue of the object fill.

Peppa Pig characters and backgrounds are a little more simple.

But the colour palette of Bluey is more appealing than that of Peppa Pig, and I wonder if Luke Pearson’s Hilda has been an influence.

A scene from TV cartoon series Hilda

A highly detailed scene from Bluey

A more typically detailed scene from Bluey

Child Development

Bingo and Bluey are 4 and 6 years old, the ‘social emotional developmental phase’, as described by Joe Blumm. He really likes this age because the kids are learning not so egocentric anymore. They want to play imaginative games but that involves other kids also having their input. The games temper their egocentricity. They need persistence to stay in those roles. The show is for that age. There’s no reading or anything like that, aimed at a more abstract age.

Blumm does not believe that kids are little adults. He wanted to create a show specifically for 4-6 year olds. His interest in psychology has clearly influenced his character development.

Family Life Realism

Another comparison is Olivia the Pig, but Bluey leaves Olivia in the dust. Bluey is clearly the brain child of people who know parenting and know kids. Ian Falconer (who wrote the original Olivia picture books) is not a parent himself and this shows in stories such as Olivia and the Missing Toy, in which I want to break the fourth wall and slap the pig parents. The actions of Olivia’s parents make no sense regarding Olivia’s character arc. In Bluey, the influence of good parenting has a direct effect on the child characters. This is realism.

Although the TV adaptation of Olivia no doubt included many parents on staff, to me it never ever reached the level of parenting realism achieved in Bluey, because the source material was lacking. Or maybe my perception of the Olivia series is partly coloured by the fact I’m not a rich New York parent. Perhaps the very Australian-ness of Bluey makes it feel like a more realistic portrayal of parenting to me (currently modern parenting in Australia).

But it’s more than that. Joe Brumm has two daughters, and the producer’s got two daughters and both his brothers have got two daughters. If you’re asking, “Why is Bluey a girl?” there’s your answer. But does the question really need to be asked? Why is it still so unusual to see a girl character without a massive pink bow telegraphing her gender smacked on top of her head?

What else makes Bluey feel ‘real’? (Code for ‘relatable’)

Integration of technology into family life

When Bluey wants to talk to her grandmother she simply calls up on the tablet. Granny doesn’t live in the same house, but she is only a call away. When Bluey and her father get back from the vet, distraught after finding a dying budgie, the mother is right there in the driveway waiting to offer comfort. It is clear that the father has called in advance to tell the mother what’s happened. This is how families are using technology.

In some ways story craft has become more difficult because of technology. How to put your fictional kids in real peril when parents are one phone call away? These kids are still too young to realistically carry mobiles, so there’s that. But my point here is that technology has also made story craft easier in some ways. The writers don’t need to show a retelling of the story to the mother, and no one would ask how she already knows.

MODERN PARENT-CHILD INTERACTIONS

Compare this show to any show from 15 years ago and you won’t find parents as realistically active and involved as these ones are. The parents in Bluey exist on the same hierarchy as the kids, but not in a way that subverts, in a carnivalesque way.

There is a long, long history of dispatching with parents in children’s stories but for modern kids, this won’t ring true. About half of the Bluey episodes include parents in the puppies’ imaginative play. I believe these are the best episodes, and my 11-year-old agreed. By including parents in the play, the writers are able to model more adult-like emotional literacy, and this show is very much about emotional literacy.

How do you apologise to someone (after leaving them out of a game)? How do you cope with being factually incorrect (about Grannies and flossing)? The parents are there to nudge the kids in the right direction.

Like any modern kids’ story, the lessons in Bluey are not taught overtly by the adults. The child characters receive prompting after being allowed to experience hard feelings on their own. At no point are they told that their bad feelings aren’t okay. It’s okay to be in a funk for the entire session at preschool. It’s okay to run out on a game if you need some time alone.

I was initially a little disappointed that it seemed the father constantly having fun with the kids (Mother as Female Maturity Formula, Dad as Doofus Fun Guy). But a few episodes in, the mother is shown participating in one of the kids’ games. Moreover:

  • Both mother and father make the bed, together (even though the mother is gently admonishing the father for some housework matter that supposedly didn’t happen yesterday)
  • The mother isn’t busy cooking dinner and waiting on the family while the dad has fun, like we often see in older stories. In the pilot episode of Bluey the mother is out at a baby shower (supposedly a fun social outing for her) while the rest of the family stay home and have fun of their own.

THE KIDS FEEL LIKE REAL KIDS

Bluey’s puppy characters are voiced by children, and these kids don’t sound like they came out of London’s most expensive elocution school. I don’t know how they did it, but it sounds naturalistic.

That said, it’s more than voice acting that achieves the sense that these puppies are ‘real kids’.

On Northrop Frye’s scale of mimetic heroes, the puppies are low-mimetic. They’re not tricksters. For example, one morning Bluey wakes up her father one morning and mimics everything he says and does. Eventually the father says, “My name is Bluey and I smell like a monkey’s butt!” Bluey isn’t savvy enough to NOT fall for that one, and the father good-naturedly ‘wins’. Fathers do tend to win these sorts of games, because fathers have been around longer.

Humour of Bluey

When looking at humour in kids’ shows I like to use taxonomy from the creator of The Onion.

LANGUAGE HUMOUR

There’s plenty of language humour in Bluey, with words specific to the show. These examples of familect (I’m guessing from the creator himself) are likely to become part of the wider cultural lexicon, much like ‘Yoink!’ and ‘Eat my shorts!’ from The Simpsons.

https://twitter.com/ariannaoliver_/status/1190978865767862278?s=20

A lot of the jokes on this show are funny because they are relatable family moments. Family moments might be given its own terminology e.g. ‘a tactical wee’. Giving something ordinary a name is funny in its own right.

CHARACTER HUMOUR

IRONY

In “Copycat”, Bluey’s father observes she has finally stopped copying everything he says. Ironically, Bluey has learned how to deal with grief over a dead budgie and has been channelling him exactly in her make-believe game in which her younger sister refuses to die like the budgie did.

PHYSICAL COMEDY

This medium lets creators play with an unlimited amount of cartoon violence but Bluey is restrained in that regard. Instead we enjoy physical comedy such as slipping on a can of beans or watching grandparents attempt the flossing dance move, and failing.

In episode one, the father has been twisting his daughter in rope swings, about to release her. When she asks him how babies get into their mothers’ bellies, he releases her for the spin to avoid answering the question.

If you like Bluey…

… and you are an adult viewer, check out We Bare Bears. This show is more squarely for an older audience, though I’m sure younger kids would be intrigued by it. The pace of talking will be too face for the 4-6 age group.

The Lap Pool by Robert Drewe

ponies

“The Lap Pool” is a short story by Australian author Robert Drewe, and the opening story in his 2008 collection The Rip. Robert Drewe is known for writing about the beach and its centrality in the lives of many Australians. But this story is about man’s relationship to a different body of water — a pool on a farm. The beach is nowhere in sight, except that he has moved away from it.

In this story the author paints a picture of a complicated, unsympathetic character and then kills him off at the end, sort of like divine retribution, the modern equivalent of deus ex machina. (Another example is “Ithaca In My Mind” by Peter Temple.) These stories can feel pointless if the author isn’t careful, partly because killing a character at the end can feel like a cheap and easy way to stop writing. If you’re planning this category of story there must be another point to the narrative.

For instance, the story might be a frame for a well-rendered evocation of a very interesting setting, symbolically and metaphorically fascinating in its own right.

Or, the author might be testing the reader’s sympathies, encouraging us to understand a character and therefore empathise as a human being. Whenever an author gives us a glimpse into the secret part of a character’s psyche we tend to empathise, even if that character is truly terrible. In that case, a death at the end forces us to realise we actually didn’t mind this guy after all. Stories with this underlying structure can thereby make us question our problematic powers of empathy.

Who do you empathise with in this story? Did you feel a pang of sadness at the end? I remained detached from Leon and I’m pretty sure I groaned at the end but “The Lap Pool” is still a masterful work of short fiction.

STORY WORLD OF “THE LAP POOL”

In a slightly different universe the “The Lap Pool” might have been plotted by America’s Annie Proulx, who has written many short stories about rich city folk who move to rural areas with romantic notions. These naive townies fail to understand the harshness of the natural environment. They annoy the real rural people with their dangerous ignorance and then the environment ends up punishing them severely. “The Lap Pool” is the Australian equivalent of a Proulx Wyoming tale.

Some stories open with a wide angle view of a setting. We’re basically told the GPS coordinates (or a fictional version thereof). In this case Robert Drewe opens with a view of a pool, and only at the beginning of section two zooms out to ground the reader in place:

Lushly green, thanks to their prime position between the coast and the Nightcap Ranges, his thirty-two acres lay along a north-south valley of carved-up dairy farms, formerly dense rainforest known as the Big Scrub.

But by opening with a man in a pool, the story becomes more universal than if it were a man in a pool in a specific region of Australia. (We’ve previously been told about Sugar Cane road, though unless you look on a map you may not know where that is.)

‘Lushly green’ paints the farm as an Arcadian setting, though what follows corrects this view for the reader. This is a postlapsarian world. It goes without saying that the dilapidated farm is an outworking of Leon’s emotional state, but worth pointing out how an opening of ‘lushly green’ fools us into thinking this is a beautiful area. In the same way, Leon’s family, friends and acquaintances were ‘fooled’ into thinking Leon was some big shot successful guy, until proven otherwise six months back.

That’s how very closely Drewe ties his main character to the setting. It’s masterful.

As Annie Proulx is wont to do, Drewe goes some way towards positioning this landscape in human history. This has the effect of widening a story’s lens, universalising it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LAP POOL”

SHORTCOMING

Leon K. is a first or second generation Australian with a clear Bucharest heritage. The lifelong impact of his non-whiteness is mostly left off the page but Drewe offers enough for us to deduce the quiet racism directed his way, and like various characters in The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, the dominant Australian culture may have taught him that in order to be afforded basic human respect he must make himself financially impressive.

… an urge to become a regular Australian, a suntanned sporting champion…

By middle age he has accumulated a lot of wealth, including a yacht and a ski lodge. As the story opens Leon is in the middle of court proceedings. Drewe drip feeds details of this situation across part one. It’s interesting to see how an author does that, and where he stops. We never find out exactly what crime Leon has committed — it’s enough to learn that he’s a white collar criminal and his impressive assets are (at least partly) partly ill-gotten.

CLUE ONE: His sixth month alone… [Why has he been alone for six months?]

CLUE TWO: Awaiting his trial… while the authorities strengthened their case against him [What has he done?]

CLUE THREE: By now all the official delays, court adjournments and tax investigations were jumbled together in his mind. [Ah, he’s being tried for tax fraud. This is in line with expectation — Drewe has just spent a paragraph painting him as a formerly rich, white-collar character who likes sudoku and fine wines.]

CLUE FOUR: How easy it was to forget the minutiae of the case — the dates, the amounts, the stock transfers and telescoping bank loans, all that paper-shuffling…

FINALLY: Instead of a former company director under indictment for alleged ‘corporate misconduct’… [Sounds boring and technical, that’s all I need to know.]

At this part of his journey towards prison Leon is teetering on the edge of sanity. The reader, along with Leon, doesn’t know for sure whether he’s being followed by white vans. Drewe draws us into Leon’s paranoia with the close third person point of view (a.ka. close psychic distance). Notice how the narrator chooses to take us into Leon’s head when it suits, then pulls out to offer a commentary on his personality that Leon himself probably doesn’t understand. For instance, in the opening paragraph below, does Leon know just how important the swimming is to him, or is this something only a narrator would understand fully? Notice also what Drewe has chosen to put inside brackets. I believe when he uses the brackets he’s inserting what Leon himself would tell us, moving more fully into Leon’s head in a paragraph which is otherwise psychically distant:

Naked and forty-seven, Leon K. backstroked steadily up and down the lap pool, an eddy of drowned insects in his wake. Of course he knew his rhythm by now; he automatically counted strokes as well as laps. … Despite the pool’s cool temperature (it was a windy autumn and the connection to the solar panels on the farmhouse roof was broken) he needed to swim in order to relax…

However, when Drewe wants to the reader to share in Leon’s confused view on reality, we’re right inside Leon’s head (close psychic narration). First we are offered Leon’s parallel view of reality, the story that goes on inside his head:

What should he anticipate around the next murky head? A riskily unlit hippie cyclist, an invisible hitchhiker, a petrol tanker thundering across the imperceptible lane markings? Would he ever see his way clear?

Lists feature heavily in this short story as well. The lists are in keeping with Leon’s psychological trick of counting his strokes, his laps, his days. He’s counting down his days towards death (though the reader doesn’t know it yet). Notice how in the paragraph below Drewe uses various kinds of lists. The first sentence describes the same thing (his fugue) in three different phrasings. The second sentence is a more traditional ‘list’, checking off all the things Leon hears around him:

At the start of his troubles he’d tried to fight the unusual effect [his solicitor’s monotone] had on him: the gradual fainting sensation and cloudy vision, leading to a total mental fade-out, a sort of grey noise where only background sounds had any relevants. The tap-tapping of the pool’s filter box, magpies calling on the lawn, brush turkeys scratching in the shrubbery.

Below, there’s no ‘bird’s eye narrator’ telling the reader, don’t worry, there’s no white car following Leon, he’s just imagining it:

Whenever he went to town, purposely observing the speed limit, his car was tailgated by furious motorists, and also sometimes by mysterious white vehicles. Several times he’d noticed a white car parked in his lane while someone photographed the house and property from the front gate. When he stepped outside to question the photographer, the man (he couldn’t tell if it was the same man) nonchalantly sauntered to his car and accelerated away. Some authority keeping tabs on him, he supposed. One of the many gung-ho State and Federal acronyms fighting corporate crime nowadays, all competing to capture the big-business scalps.

DESIRE

We can deduce that Leon doesn’t want to be found guilty and sent to prison, but that’s actually outside the realms of this story.

This particular snapshot of Leon’s life centres on a short period before his court case in which he’s losing everything. He’s lost his family, his friends, most of his assets. In this story he wants to keep his grip on reality as best he can, stave off paranoia and worry, and keep doing laps in the pool on his run-down farm.

OPPONENT

What’s stopping him?

First it’s his lawyer, who is otherwise on his side. (For the part that happens outside the bounds of this story.)

Against his own best interests he’d come to dread the weekly visit of the one person who might at least clarify matters for him

What else is stopping him from psychic peace? He is widely disliked by his neighbours because he comes from Eastern Sydney (Vaucluse is an expensive part of Australia). In a story about the rural urban divide, Leon’s rural neighbours make natural opponents.

Of course his neighbours, real farmers, many of whose ancestors had razed the original rainforest to plant gras for their cattle, detested the camphor laurel as an alien weed…

A note about the camphor. As noted by the narrator, the ‘detested camphor laurel’ is closely associated with ‘the Asian Hordes’ in rural Australia. (Camphor features heavily in Japanese animation My Neighbour Totoro.) In South Asia, camphor is considered highly purifying is used to represent the dissolution of the ego since it burns without leaving any trace. I’m not sure if Drewe had this symbolism in mind when he wrote this story, but let’s imagine nothing is an accident.

What he absolutely did know is that the camphor laurel is “probably is a tree that has stirred up more emotion than anything.” It grows quickly around the Big Scrub area and provides nice, green, leafy shade but is now considered a weed. Farmers are currently divided between those who consider the camphor tree a problem and those who are okay with a more gradual eradication.

Camphor is mentioned again in the context of moth balls as Leon recalls a fur coat in a wardrobe after seeing a pony’s ragged rump.

The ‘community’ as opponent requires a face, and that face needs to appear in a scene. In this case it’s the old hippie who yells at Leon in the street, calling him a wog.

Finally a romantic opponent arrives, or a proxy. China Mason, another Asian reference which in the end has nothing to do with Asia. (China is a rhyming slang nick name.) Drewe is making use of that old chestnut in which women are closer to the earth (because women are the vessels of reproduction and provide food from the body), while men consider themselves closer to god. Like many of Drewe’s middle-aged male narrators, Leon big struggles against his own hormonal/physical reaction to a woman when he knows, for propriety’s sake, he’s not meant to react in that way. In reality, the snake catcher (an erotic pun?) has nothing to do with Leon’s big struggle against himself.

But notice how what Leon thinks he thinks about men and women isn’t actually how he feels about men and women. Before the arrival of the unexpectedly woman snake catcher, Leon (or the narrator) has this to say about men:

Male habits made a disgusting list. The deep indentations their buttocks left int he sofa, the everlasting stink in the bathroom, the eggy detritus of their breakfast plates. Representing his gender, irritating and unaware Wyntuhl had a lot to answer for. Men were so rooted to the ground, over-earthed and overbearing.

PLAN

Although it really tests Leon to pick up the phone in his current psychological state, he has no choice but to call the snake catcher.

In Australia these people really do exist, and this is what we’re meant to do if we find an unwelcome snake on our property. We’re not meant to wait until the creature is almost dead before calling, because snakes are a protected species. In short, Leon does nothing at all until he really has to.

BIG STRUGGLE

The snake catcher removes the snake deftly from the pool. Another writer might’ve made a big deal out of that, turning it into the Battle scene. But this would’ve been the wrong thing to do because this is not the Battle scene of the story at all. Instead, it is written in a matter-of-fact way:

She took only about twenty seconds to scoop up the snake from the pool and snap the trap shut, and perhaps another minute to detach the trap from the pole and place it in the back of her van.

When a second snake emerges in the pool and bites Leon on the neck (of all places) the story jumps the shark. Or, more generously, Drewe plunges us firmly into fairytale realm.

ANAGNORISIS

A dead character can’t exactly have a anagnorisis but they can have some thoughts just as they expire. Leon asks the snake catcher woman, “What do I do now?” He has realised his powerlessness. Until now he’s distracted himself with swimming and sudoku and whatnot, but finally he’s realised the extent of his own vulnerability.

This is why I think Drewe knows full well the symbolism behind camphor. As he dies, Leon shucks off his ego.

NEW SITUATION

Leon is dead. He won’t have to go to court, I guess.

There’s an ideology implicitly embedded in stories like these, in which a main character commits wrongs against society and then ends up punished by nature: That nature has its own karmic force.

This sums up why I’m not personally a fan of stories like this. My own worldview is inversely that nature doesn’t care. Worse, due to how we’ve set society up, nature in reality takes good people more often than it takes the Leon Ks of this world.

“The Lap Pool” is a short story by Australian author Robert Drewe, and the opening story in the 2008 collection The Rip. Robert Drewe is known for writing about the beach, and its importance to the lives of many Australians, but this particular story is about man’s relationship to a very different body of water — a pool on a farm. The beach is nowhere in sight.

This is an example of a story in which the author paints a picture of a complicated, unsympathetic character and then kills him at the end, sort of like divine retribution, the modern equivalent of deus ex machina. (Another example is “Ithaca In My Mind” by Peter Temple.) These stories can feel pointless if the author isn’t careful, partly because killing a character at the end can feel like a cheap and easy way to stop writing. If you’re planning this category of story there must be another point to the narrative, because the plot in itself is not sophisticated.

For instance, the story might be a frame for a well-rendered evocation of a very interesting setting.

Or, the author might be testing the reader’s empathies, encouraging us to understand a character and therefore empathise as a human being. Whenever an author gives us a glimpse into the secret part of a character’s psyche we are primed to empathise, even if that person is truly terrible. In that case, the death at the end forces us to realise we actually didn’t mind this guy after all. Stories with this underlying structure can thereby make us question our problematic powers of empathy.

Who do you empathise with in this story? Did you feel a pang of sadness at the end?

STORY WORLD OF “THE LAP POOL”

In a slightly different universe the “The Lap Pool” might have been plotted by America’s Annie Proulx, who has written many short stories about rich city folk who move to rural areas, who fail to understand the harshness of the environment, annoy the real rural people with their dangerous ignorance and then end up punished by the environment itself. This is an Australian equivalent.

Some stories open with a wide angle view of a setting. We’re basically told the GPS coordinates (or a fictional version thereof). In this case Robert Drewe opens with a view of a pool, and only at the beginning of section two zooms out to ground the reader in place:

Lushly green, thanks to their prime position between the coast and the Nightcap Ranges, his thirty-two acres lay along a north-south valley of carved-up dairy farms, formerly dense rainforest known as the Big Scrub.

But by opening with a man in a pool, the story becomes more universal than if it were a man in a pool in a specific region of Australia. (We’ve previously been told about Sugar Cane road, though unless you look on a map you may not know where that is.)

‘Lushly green’ paints the farm as an Arcadian setting, though what follows corrects this view for the reader. This is a postlapsarian world. It goes without saying that the dilapidated farm is an outworking of Leon’s emotional state, but worth pointing out how an opening of ‘lushly green’ fools us into thinking this is a beautiful area. In the same way, Leon’s family, friends and acquaintances were ‘fooled’ into thinking Leon was some big shot successful guy, until proven otherwise six months back.

That’s how very closely Drewe ties his main character to the setting. It’s masterful.

As Annie Proulx is wont to do, Drewe goes some way towards positioning this landscape in human history. This widens a story’s field of view, universalising it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LAP POOL”

SHORTCOMING

Leon K. is a first or second generation Australian with a clear Bucharest heritage. The lifelong impact of his non-whiteness is mostly left off the page but Drewe offers enough for us to deduce the quiet racism directed his way, and like various characters in The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, the dominant Australian culture may have taught him that in order to be afforded basic human respect he must make himself financially impressive.

… an urge to become a regular Australian, a suntanned sporting champion…

By middle age he has accumulated a lot of wealth, including a yacht and a ski lodge. As the story opens Leon is in the middle of court proceedings. Drewe drip feeds details of this situation across part one. It’s interesting to see how an author does that, and where he stops. We never find out exactly what crime Leon has committed — it’s enough to learn that he’s a white collar criminal and his impressive assets are (at least partly) partly ill-gotten.

CLUE ONE: His sixth month alone… [Why has he been alone for six months?]

CLUE TWO: Awaiting his trial… while the authorities strengthened their case against him [What has he done?]

CLUE THREE: By now all the official delays, court adjournments and tax investigations were jumbled together in his mind. [Ah, he’s being tried for tax fraud. This is in line with expectation — Drewe has just spent a paragraph painting him as a formerly rich, white-collar character who likes sudoku and fine wines.]

CLUE FOUR: How easy it was to forget the minutiae of the case — the dates, the amounts, the stock transfers and telescoping bank loans, all that paper-shuffling…

FINALLY: Instead of a former company director under indictment for alleged ‘corporate misconduct’… [Sounds boring and technical, that’s all I need to know.]

At this part of his journey towards prison Leon is teetering on the edge of sanity. The reader, along with Leon, doesn’t know for sure whether he’s being followed by white vans. Drewe draws us into Leon’s paranoia with the close third person point of view (a.ka. close psychic distance). Notice how the narrator chooses to take us into Leon’s head when it suits, then pulls out to offer a commentary on his personality that Leon himself probably doesn’t understand. For instance, in the opening paragraph below, does Leon know just how important the swimming is to him, or is this something only a narrator would understand fully? Notice also what Drewe has chosen to put inside brackets. I believe when he uses the brackets he’s inserting what Leon himself would tell us, moving more fully into Leon’s head in a paragraph which is otherwise psychically distant:

Naked and forty-seven, Leon K. backstroked steadily up and down the lap pool, an eddy of drowned insects in his wake. Of course he knew his rhythm by now; he automatically counted strokes as well as laps. … Despite the pool’s cool temperature (it was a windy autumn and the connection to the solar panels on the farmhouse roof was broken) he needed to swim in order to relax…

However, when Drewe wants to the reader to share in Leon’s confused view on reality, we’re right inside Leon’s head (close psychic narration). First we are offered Leon’s parallel view of reality, the story that goes on inside his head:

What should he anticipate around the next murky head? A riskily unlit hippie cyclist, an invisible hitchhiker, a petrol tanker thundering across the imperceptible lane markings? Would he ever see his way clear?

Lists feature heavily in this short story as well. The lists are in keeping with Leon’s psychological trick of counting his strokes, his laps, his days. He’s counting down his days towards death (though the reader doesn’t know it yet). Notice how in the paragraph below Drewe uses various kinds of lists. The first sentence describes the same thing (his fugue) in three different phrasings. The second sentence is a more traditional ‘list’, checking off all the things Leon hears around him:

At the start of his troubles he’d tried to fight the unusual effect [his solicitor’s monotone] had on him: the gradual fainting sensation and cloudy vision, leading to a total mental fade-out, a sort of grey noise where only background sounds had any relevants. The tap-tapping of the pool’s filter box, magpies calling on the lawn, brush turkeys scratching in the shrubbery.

Below, there’s no ‘bird’s eye narrator’ telling the reader, don’t worry, there’s no white car following Leon, he’s just imagining it:

Whenever he went to town, purposely observing the speed limit, his car was tailgated by furious motorists, and also sometimes by mysterious white vehicles. Several times he’d noticed a white car parked in his lane while someone photographed the house and property from the front gate. When he stepped outside to question the photographer, the man (he couldn’t tell if it was the same man) nonchalantly sauntered to his car and accelerated away. Some authority keeping tabs on him, he supposed. One of the many gung-ho State and Federal acronyms fighting corporate crime nowadays, all competing to capture the big-business scalps.

DESIRE

We can deduce that Leon doesn’t want to be found guilty and sent to prison, but that’s actually outside the realms of this story.

This particular snapshot of Leon’s life centres on a short period before his court case in which he’s losing everything. He’s lost his family, his friends, most of his assets. In this story he wants to keep his grip on reality as best he can, stave off paranoia and worry, and keep doing laps in the pool on his run-down farm.

OPPONENT

What’s stopping him?

First it’s his lawyer, who is otherwise on his side. (For the part that happens outside the bounds of this story.)

Against his own best interests he’d come to dread the weekly visit of the one person who might at least clarify matters for him

What else is stopping him from psychic peace? He is widely disliked by his neighbours because he comes from Eastern Sydney (Vaucluse is an expensive part of Australia). In a story about the rural urban divide, Leon’s rural neighbours make natural opponents.

Of course his neighbours, real farmers, many of whose ancestors had razed the original rainforest to plant gras for their cattle, detested the camphor laurel as an alien weed…

A note about the camphor. As noted by the narrator, the ‘detested camphor laurel’ is closely associated with ‘the Asian Hordes’ in rural Australia. (Camphor features heavily in Japanese animation My Neighbour Totoro.) In South Asia, camphor is considered highly purifying is used to represent the dissolution of the ego since it burns without leaving any trace. I’m not sure if Drewe had this symbolism in mind when he wrote this story, but let’s imagine nothing is an accident.

What he absolutely did know is that the camphor laurel is “probably is a tree that has stirred up more emotion than anything.” It grows quickly around the Big Scrub area and provides nice, green, leafy shade but is now considered a weed. Farmers are currently divided between those who consider the camphor tree a problem and those who are okay with a more gradual eradication.

The ‘community’ as opponent requires a face, and that face needs to appear in a scene. In this case it’s the old hippie who yells at Leon in the street, calling him a wog.

Finally a romantic opponent arrives, or a proxy. Drewe is making use of that old chestnut in which women are closer to the earth (because women are the vessels of reproduction and provide food from the body), while men consider themselves closer to god. Like many of Drewe’s middle-aged male narrators, Leon big struggles against his own hormonal/physical reaction to a woman when he knows, for propriety’s sake, he’s not meant to react in that way. In reality, the snake catcher (an erotic pun?) has nothing to do with Leon’s big struggle against himself.

But notice how what Leon thinks he thinks about men and women isn’t actually how he feels about men and women. Before the arrival of the unexpectedly woman snake catcher, Leon (or the narrator) has this to say about men:

Male habits made a disgusting list. The deep indentations their buttocks left int he sofa, the everlasting stink in the bathroom, the eggy detritus of their breakfast plates. Representing his gender, irritating and unaware Wyntuhl had a lot to answer for. Men were so rooted to the ground, over-earthed and overbearing.

PLAN

Although it really tests Leon to pick up the phone in his current psychological state, he has no choice but to call the snake catcher.

In Australia these people really do exist, and this is what we’re meant to do if we find an unwelcome snake on our property. We’re not meant to wait until the creature is almost dead before calling, because snakes are a protected species. In short, Leon does nothing at all until he really has to.

BIG STRUGGLE

The snake catcher removes the snake deftly from the pool. Another writer might’ve made a big deal out of that, turning it into the Battle scene. But this would’ve been the wrong thing to do, because this is not the Battle scene of the story at all. Instead, it is written in a matter-of-fact way, as if describing a laundry cycle:

When a second snake emerges in the pool and bites Leon on the neck (of all places) the story has jumped the shark. Or, more generously, Drewe has plunged us more firmly into fairytale realm.

ANAGNORISIS

A dead character can’t exactly have a anagnorisis but they can have some thoughts just as they expire. Leon asks the snake catcher woman, “What do I do now?” He has realised his powerlessness. Until now he’s distracted himself with swimming and sudoku and whatnot, but finally he’s realised the extent of his own vulnerability.

This is why I think Drewe knows full well the symbolism behind camphor. Leon has shucked off his ego.

NEW SITUATION

Leon is dead. He won’t have to go to court, I guess.

There’s an ideology implicitly embedded in stories like these, in which a main character commits wrongs against society and then ends up punished by nature: That nature has its own karmic force.

This sums up why I’m not personally a fan of stories like this. My own worldview is inversely that nature doesn’t care. Worse, due to how we’ve set society up, nature in reality takes good people more often than it takes the Leon Ks of this world.

thumbs_up_down

Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

Symbolism of the Beach in Australian Literature

Sydney convict art beach

Iconic Examples of Australian Beach Stories

There are a great number of natural landscapes in Australia apart from beaches (rainforests, desert areas, snow-capped mountains) yet the beach has somehow become iconic.

In Australia, there is a cabal of writers who can be described as ‘Australian Coastal Gothic’.

  • Tim Winton
  • Robert Drewe
  • Peter Temple

These novels and short stories are often about men who retreat from inland areas to the coast. The setting is dark and brooding. The men have secrets. They are often in mourning over a woman’s death. They meet grotesque characters who almost personify their grief. Beaches are badlands.

What is distinctive about the Australian beach?

The term ‘beach’ in Australia has a wider meaning than its geographical qualities. 

Beaches exist all over the world but are an internationally iconic image of Australia. The beach is pervasive in Australian advertising, tourism and popular representation. The beach is presented as idyllic, almost nostalgic and beautiful.

Tourist photos of the Australian beach tend to focus on the natural aspects and remove amenities. The exception to this is The Gold Coast, in which the beach and urban cannot be disentangled. Images will include skyscrapers along the waterfront. 

Some beaches are far more hospitable than others. There is great variation. Water temperature varies a lot at any given time. Tasmanian beaches are more suitable for picnicking than swimming because the water is generally cold. Northern beaches near Darwin are unsafe because of crocodiles.

In Australia rural and urban areas tend to stand in opposition to one another (with preference for the rural). The beach falls into both camps — it is ‘natural landscape’ but it is also an extension of suburbia.

The beach is associated with leisure, hedonism pleasure, indolence. The beach is healing, a place of escape, a spiritual place.

When the beach is depicted as healing, there’s a big difference between characters who live at the beach and those who holiday there. Tourists don’t have to fit beach time around the ordinary aspects of their lives. The holiday is itself an escape.

But beach holidays often induce guilt. Characters feel guilty at what they leave behind. Guilt can provide the motivation to make big changes in a character’s ordinary, non-holiday life. The holiday itself triggers a character arc.

In fiction targeted at women, a holiday to the beach can make a female main character reassess who she is looking for as a romantic partner. She might be an uptight sort of character who loses her sexual inhibitions on holiday and is forever changed because of it. Beach holidays can let women reclaim parts of themselves that they’ve lost touch with (apart from sexual aspects). They can forget about societal expectations placed upon women in everyday life, giving them a feminist ideology.

In this way, the beach can act as a type of mirror. The natural beauty of the beach allows a woman to see the natural beauty in herself.

Beautiful places have been shown to be good for mental health. (We get the same effect in a forest.)

A beautiful setting allows for a binary to exist — beautiful versus non-beautiful. This is why the mythic natural beauty of the beach can symbolise heaven on earth. Horror films subvert this, juxtaposing a beautiful beach against death. The beautiful playground of a beach can become a kind of prison. Characters move from freedom to slavery.

The message of some horror beach films is that characters create their own fate by disturbing a pristine environment. They had no business being there. Nature (or supernature) shrugs them off.

Australia has no legend based on how we live as an urban coastal society, unlike the myth of the bush, which is a strong tradition. Yet for many modern Australians, the beach is a more familiar territory than ‘the bush’. 

British people tend to see natural landscape in terms of ‘countryside’ and ‘seaside’. At the ‘seaside’ you get resorts, relaxation and therapeutic results. But The Australian beach is a place for swimming and surfing. Australian beachgoers are not passive. Even when not swimming or surfing, Australians bring their beach furniture with them and decide where to sit. They are holidaymakers rather than beachgoers.

When compared to American beaches, Australian beaches feel ‘transient’. Australian holidaymakers are responsible for bringing everything — you can’t hire umbrellas and lounges like you can in Honolulu. Holiday resorts do exist in Australia (e.g. Byron Bay) but there is not much emphasis on those in literature. Australian beach culture is far more accepting of nature than in trying to impose human order onto it.

Bush mythologies tend to idealise individuality. You’re on your own out there. Survival in the bush is seen as a personal achievement. But the beach is all about pleasures shared with others. ‘Indecent’ pleasures challenge social norms in a community. Competitive sport flourishes.

The naturalness of the beach is part of the myth of the Australian beach. This is the beach of our imagination. In this imagined version of the beach, we’re the only person walking along pristine beaches of untouched sand.

In fact the beach is surveilled: The beach is under the eye of the lifeguard from the tower, and increasingly, the beach is also observed through technological means such as cameras installed to detect erosion.

Many Indigenous texts place more importance on fresh water than the beach. Yet there are still some important aspects of the beach that feature in the writing of Indigenous authors and in films that feature Indigenous characters.

Iconic Australian beaches: Surfers Paradise (Gold Coast, Queensland) and Bondi Beach (Sydney, New South Wales). These settings are also common in Australian stories.

Normally the word ‘badlands‘ conjures images of extensive tracts of heavily eroded, uncultivable land with little vegetation, for instance the barren plateau region of the western US (North and South Dakota and Nebraska). But the Australian beach can be used as a type of badlands.

In the 1960s the Beaumont children went missing. (Their mother recently died without ever knowing what happened to them.) They disappeared from Glenelg Beach near Adelaide, South Australia on 26 January 1966 (Australia Day)

Harold Holt went swimming in the sea and never returned. He was Australia’s prime minister. The fact that a prime minister can go missing like that is seen as a quintessentially Australian thing. We like to think this could never happen to the American president, whose body is protected, his every move monitored.

In the 1980s and 90s, infamous gay hate murders took place on Bondi beaches

Bra Boys is a movie about the Cronulla riots of 2005

Crime, assaults and kidnapped children continue to be plots in fictional texts with beach settings. 

The beach is often a horror setting e.g. The Long Weekend (1978) and Lost Things (2003). Sometimes the beauty of the beach juxtaposes against the horror that unfolds e.g. The Long Weekend (1978 movie), Lost Things (2003 movie). Like any good horror story, the setting (in this case the beach) is initially set up as an idyllic, beautiful place. Also true to the horror genre, these beaches are difficult to reach and isolated. The humans are plucked off from the herd. In a Love story, the beach can act as a mirror, showing the (female) main character the beauty in herself. In a horror story the beach can also act as a mirror, but this time it reflects the evil within the main character(s).

In either case, the beach has the power to reveal some sort of truth.

The beauty of the beach is sometimes cast as ‘tempting’ e.g. Two Hands (1999 film). Bondi Beach is depicted as a glittering ocean which entices Jimmy into the water, away from his tasks. 

The Australian beach is increasingly urban as the city and its suburbs encroach further onto the sand. 

Philip Drew, in his work The Coast Dwellers, believes that the Europeans brought their own understanding of space to Australia when they arrived in the late 19th century. Europeans journeyed here with a “conception of a closed centric world”. But this understanding that did not fit the geographical complexities of the country they found themselves in.

Even natural beach elements can be scary. Nature is unpredictable and we can’t control it (shark attacks, wild weather). 

The beach is considered a space of equality. Anyone can go there, whether rich or poor. No one owns the beach. Once at the beach, no one is judged on the norms of the rest of their lives — everyone is now just a person at the beach, perhaps stripped down without clothes as status symbols. Employment and wealth is discarded. However, in practice the classless beach isn’t real, sometimes made clear in fiction as well. In Puberty Blues Kathy Lette describes Green Hills beach as trendy while beaches at the sound end of Cronulla are family friendly (but not trendy).

Some texts objectify women on the sand. Surfing texts are very masculine. Some films objectify other kinds of bodies, including the bodies of men. 

a policeman measures a woman's bathers to check for modesty
Bathing suit police existed in Australia. Not the image of freedom and equality young Australians might conjure today.

Australian beach films are rarely financially or critically successful. (e.g. Newcastle) But still Australians keep trying to make beach movies and TV shows. 

The beach is neither marginal nor liminal. It allows the imaginative and the social to exist at once within the same landscape. This is called ‘Beachspace’. Liminal is all about the concepts of transition and shifting ambiguities, categorised by disorientation and a loss of belonging. In contrast, the beach can create a sense of belonging, or multiple belongings. 

Like high places, the beach can be used as a place to gain perspective, especially by going surfing. For surfers, waves can be a refuge and like driving, afford a sense of control. The main character of Breath by Tim Winton (2008) uses the surf in this way. He feels he can’t control death around him in his regular life.

Even though characters might try to use the beach as a safe space away from their ordinary lives, the beach isn’t always binary in that way. Floating in the shallows is similar to sitting in a bath, affording characters the space to think. Characters often have anagnorises in the water.

by Kathleen Hale for “Orlando the Marmalade Cat – A Seaside Holiday” (1952)
All Around Me Opposites by Shirley Hughes
All Around Me Opposites by Shirley Hughes

FURTHER READING

Header painting is a View of Sydney from the West side of the Cover painted in 1806 by a convict artist John Eyre. Some convicts were artists. Some of them were even convicted because of art — for forgery.

Tomorrow When The War Began Questions

Tomorrow When The War Began

The following are some resources I used with New Zealand high school English students some years ago during a novel study of Tomorrow When The War Began by John Marsden. Posted here in case anyone still finds this useful.

How many wars has New Zealand been involved in during the last 50 years?

  1. The Cold War (1950 to 1953)
  2. Korean War (1949)
  3. Malayan Emergency (1960)
  4. Vietnam War (1965 and 1971)
  5. September 11 Attacks (2001)

Was there any warning before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre Towers in New York? (September 2001)

Are there any civil defence guidelines for what to do if New Zealand was attacked by another country?

Where is East Timor, who invaded it in 1975, and what was New Zealand’s response to this invasion?

TIME LINE FOR TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN

(CUT THE PIECES UP THEN STICK THEM ONTO A PIECE OF PAPER IN THE CORRECT ORDER.)
The narrator says that Robyn told her to write everything down.Ellie decides to go camping up in Hell.
The narrator introduces us to the members of the group.The group drives to Tailor’s Stitch in the Landrover.
The group set up camp in Hell.They find a snake in a sleeping-bag.
Ellie sees waves of jets flying overhead.The group heads back to Ellie’s house in Wirrawee
The group goes to Homer’s and Corrie’s housesThey decide to go into town later that night to see what is happening
Ellie, Corrie and Kevin see people being held in tents at the showgrounds.They get trapped in Mrs Alexander’s back yard.
Ellie blows up three soldiers with a ride-on lawn mower.Robyn and Lee don’t return from town.
The group makes plans to load up the vehicles and head to the shearer’s quarters.A helicopter circles the house, sees Flip and signals a jet to blow up Corrie’s house.
They find Robyn in her own house, although she was meant to wait on the hill.They return to rescue Lee from the restaurant and destroy several vehicles on the way out.
They find Chris (in his pyjamas) after rolling the car into the dam.They carry Lee back to Hell.
Ellie finds the Hermit’s hut.The group reads some documents they found in the Hermit’s hut.
The group decides to do something to slow the enemy down.Fi and Ellie steal a petrol tanker and Ellie drives it to a secure location.
Homer drives the cattle over the bridge using a camera flash to scare the cattle.The tanker blows up the bridge.
We learn that Corrie has been shot.Kevin and Corrie leave the group for good.
Author’s note: John Marsden tells us that the story is based, in part, on real events 

AN EXTREMELY SCAFFOLDED ESSAY WRITING EXERCISE

Describe an important idea dealt with in the text.

Explain why this idea is important.

INTRODUCTION

An important idea in the novel by John Marsden, Tomorrow When the War Began, concerns growing up despite adversity.  All the main characters in the novel change over the course of events in the story, especially Ellie, who starts off as an ordinary rural Australian teenager and ends up a more mature, introspective adult.  Ellie’s growth as a character is important because Marsden hopes she will be an important role model for the novel’s teenage audience.

PARAGRAPH ONE

  • Describe Ellie at the start of the novel
  • Find evidence from the text to show she is an ordinary teenager (a mimetic hero if you want to use Northrop Frye’s terminology)
  • Make reference also to the teenagers’ comments about the Hermit, and how they think he must be terrible because he killed his own family.
  • Finally in this paragraph, explain how this is related to the fact that at this stage of the novel the teenagers see things in black in white.  They don’t see shades of grey, for example how it might be considered right to kill others in some circumstances.  Explain that this part of the book is important because the teenagers seem familiar to the audience, and can identify with them.

PARAGRAPH TWO

  • Compare this to an incident part way through the novel when they are way out of their comfort zones, doing things they never thought they could do. (You choose the incident, perhaps the lawnmower one.)
  • Explain that the setting is important here because if it weren’t an isolated, rural area, help would be readily available and they wouldn’t have the opportunity to show what they are capable of.
  • Explain that one of the reasons Marsden wrote the series was to show that under difficult circumstances, teenagers can shine.  And that this incident demonstrated the teenagers doing exactly that.  This idea is important because it helps the teenage audience feel strong and capable.  Teenagers in this book are capable and valued.

PARAGRAPH THREE

  • Now pick an incident near the end of the book (eg. the bridge incident)
  • Include a quote to show that Ellie is now a much more introspective character.
  • Explain that through the narrator of Ellie comes Marsden’s voice, and he is inviting us to think about things that we may not have thought of before (eg equality between Australia and the invaders), whether it is right to kill in some circumstances and not in others.  By having Ellie as a reflective character, and seeing her change, Marsden is triggering change in the readers, too.

CONCLUSION

The idea of personal development through adversity is linked to other, thought-provoking ideas in Tomorrow When the War Began.  Marsden’s point is that it is not until teenagers go through tough times that we fully understand the shades of gray surrounding some issues.  He hopes that his narrator Ellie will be a model for teenagers reading the book, who reflect on issues carefully, and perhaps become more open-minded for doing so.

ANALYSIS OF AN ‘EXCELLENCE’ ESSAY (NCEA level one)

(This was an example of excellence when NCEA had just started. Standards may have changed in the past 15 years.)

TASK: Describe an important character in the text.  Explain why he/she is important.

Tomorrow When the War Began – John Marsden

An important character in this novel is Ellie. She is important because she shows how human beings can adapt to their circumstances. She was drawn into a war situation and faced adversity. This required her to adapt and mature.

Ellie began life as a rural teenager. She lived on a farm and her life consisted of school, friends and family. She was sheltered: “Our lives had always been so unaffected by the outside world.”  She loved “being a rural” and had little pressure other than to milk cows. Despite this gentle lifestyle I gained an impression early on in the novel that Ellie is an intelligent leader, confident in herself and showing strength of character. This is further shown when Ellie and her friends are thrust into a volatile war. Ellie was forced to kill three soldiers in order to save herself and her two friends: “This is war now and normal rules don’t apply.”

We see Ellie being reflective and realising that she has special qualities. “It was hard for me to believe that I, plain old Ellie; nothing about me, middle of the road in every way; had probably just killed three people.”  She questions her own motives and eventually accepts her situation. The reader sees  her able to make adult decisions.  “I stopped being a normal teenager and began to become someone else.”

Ellie is important because she shows that within us all are qualities that emerge only when circumstances change. Human beings can adapt to almost all situations, showing a courage and an ability to cope with adverse circumstances. Ellie is important because she shows the complexity of human nature and our ability to reflect on our lives.

  1. What exact words did the student use to answer the question in the first paragraph?
  2. What is the reason given for the character’s importance?
  3. What is said about Ellie’s character early in the novel?
  4. What example from the novel backs it up?
  5. What change has the student noticed in Ellie over the course of the novel?
  6. What evidence is given for this change?
  7. How is the essay concluded?

***

TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN QUIZ

(The following are simple know-it-or-not type questions and can be used competitively between groups and with a time limit attached.)

  1. What is the narrator’s name?
  2. Who lived in Hell before the group did?
  3. What game did Homer invent in Year 8?
  4. How did the group get to hell?
  5. Who had to stay at home and work on the farm?
  6. What is the name of the town they live in?
  7. What public holiday was the country celebrating?
  8. Who has Thai and Vietnamese parents?
  9. Who does Homer develop a liking for?
  10. What was in the sleeping bag?
  11. What happened when Ellie went to the toilet at night?
  12. What was the first indication that something was wrong at the farm?
  13. What is Homer’s surname?
  14. Whose parents write a note to the kids?
  15. Where was everyone being held?
  16. What is Ellie’s ex-boyfriend’s name?
  17. What had been happening at the show grounds before the kids left?
  18. How does Corrie hurt her leg when they are chased from the showgrounds?
  19. Where did they get trapped?
  20. How did they get away?
  21. Who gets separated from Ellie and the others?
  22. Where do they meet after going into the showgrounds?
  23. What is Homer’s ethnicity?
  24. After coming back from town the first time, where do they initially plan to hide?
  25. Where do they keep a lookout?
  26. Where did Homer and Fi hide?
  27. What do Ellie Corrie and Homer see while on look-out?
  28. What happens to the family photos?
  29. What makes the soldiers in the helicopter suspicious?
  30. What happened to Corrie’s house?
  31. Where do they find Lee and Robyn?
  32. Who did Robyn and Lee meet in the town?
  33. What had happened to Lee?
  34. Where was Lee hidden?
  35. How do they get Lee out?
  36. Where do they get it from?
  37. What kind of car does Homer pick them up in?
  38. What do they eventually do to it?
  39. What happens immediately after this?
  40. How did Lee get back to Hell?
  41. What ritual did Corrie have in Hell?
  42. When listening to the radio, which country do the children hear refusing to help?
  43. Who can butcher the feral animals they catch?
  44. Where do the pairs plan to have their base when they go back into Wirrawee?
  45. What was the title of the half a book they found in the Hermit’s hut?
  46. What was the Hermit’s name?
  47. How did his wife and child die?
  48. What had Chris “souvenired” from town?
  49. How did Homer scare the cattle?
  50. Who drove the petrol tanker?

JOHN MARSDEN: WRITING THE WAR

Part of a Creative Writing series of videos. Possibly hard to get now, except floating around in high school English department resource rooms.

Watch the video and answer the following questions.

THEME

What gets Marsden angry about teenagers?

INFLUENCES

What did Marsden want to show in “Tomorrow”?

SETTING

Why was it important for the book to be set in a rural area?

TARGET AUDIENCE

Who is the target audience?

PLANNING

How does Marsden write?

What had Marsden decided about the plot before he started writing?

What person does Marsden like to write in?

VOICE

When does Marsden know that he has ‘grasped’ the essence of a character?

What does every character have to have?

What does Ellie reflect on?

OTHER CHARACTERS

How does Marsden bring other characters to life?

STATUS

What do characters in any novel have to do?

What is a typical way in which they do this?

What examples are given?

  • Kevin
  • Homer

HARD TIMES

What has to happen for change?

What does the writer need to do to make characters suffer?

HELL

Why did Marsden use the setting of Hell to launch the story?

Why did he call it Hell?

THE HERMIT SUBPLOT

What is the main similarity between the main plot and the hermit subplot?

How does Marsden show the similarity symbolically?

What do the rotting wood and rose symbolise?

BACKGROUND DETAIL

What three things does a writer need to be conscious of all the time they are writing?

FOREGROUND

What is the foreground for?

How does a writer create a good main story?

RELATIONSHIPS

What does a book need apart from action?

REFLECTION

What does reflection mean?

WHO ARE THE INVADERS?

Why is Marsden careful not to identify the invaders?

MARKETING

Why does Marsden like to take more responsibility for the marketing than many authors?

FINALLY

What is Ellie’s comment about story telling?

The Cider Duck by Joan Woodberry

The Cider Duck (1969) is an Australian picture book written by Joan Woodberry and illustrated by Molly Stephens.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR AND ILLUSTRATOR

Joan Woodberry (1921-2010) was an influential, widely-travelled Tasmanian feminist whose efforts made women’s lives palpably better in Tasmania.

Finding information on Molly Stephens is a little more difficult partly because she was also known as Molly Pascall, her birth name. The Cider Duck is perhaps the only published book she illustrated. It seems she was a fine artist and teacher the rest of the time. She may have liked cats? If it’s the same Molly Stephens, she left some of her estate to The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Like Joan, Molly was a teacher. She was born in 1920 and educated in England, as an artist, then after the war spent a while in Egypt. She then emigrated to Australia. She lived in Tasmania until her death in 1970, first in Smithton, then in Hobart. She specialised in portraits.

Fine art by Molly Stephens. Oil on Masonite with plaster ‘cat section’

In short, both writer and illustrator were well-travelled women who lived through the 20th century wars. They both worked with children and settled in Tasmania. I’m guessing — though it’s just a guess — they knew each other and collaborated, unlike most writer/illustrator combos today, who are set up by the publisher and rarely meet until the job is done, if at all.

STORYWORLD OF THE CIDER DUCK

The reader is left in no doubt about the setting:

  • When? 1832, conveyed as intratext across the bridge. Night time.
  • Where? The Eider Duck Inn, Richmond, Van Diemen’s Land (now called Tasmania), Australia. Richmond is not far from Hobart, to the NNE. I’m not sure if The Eider Duck Inn was a real place — let me know if you have the answer.
  • Weather: windy, rainy, with lightning.

Pictured above is The Richmond Bridge.

The Richmond Bridge is a heritage listed arch bridge located on the B31 (“Convict Trail”) in Richmond, 25 kilometres (15.5 mi) north of Hobart in Tasmania, Australia. It is the oldest stone span bridge in Australia.

Wikipedia

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CIDER DUCK

SHORTCOMING

Well, the duck gets drunk. Drunk on fermented apples, to be specific. This isn’t on the page, but deduced after she wanders into the kitchen and ‘falls asleep’ so soundly that she doesn’t notice all of her feathers being plucked out. Because she is drunk she is powerless to stop it.

I figure this duck had a brush with death by alcohol poisoning. The child audience believes the little duck is gloriously happy frolicking about in the utopian world of wind-fallen fruit, finally getting so tired she simply nods off.

DESIRE

All the duck wants is to walk about eating delicious things.

We assume she does not want to be eaten herself. But she’s out to it. Instead, this desire is transferred to the child audience, now reading a harrowing story about a duck who’s about to get cooked.

OPPONENT

The duck is more duck-like than human-like, though we are to believe the duck has human emotions (such as pride, in the end). Therefore, the plot revelation is had by the human main character — the ‘kind hostess’ realises the duck wasn’t dead at all. It was simply asleep.

So the duck’s opponent also functions as the human proxy after this harrowing near-death experience.

PLAN

To make amends, the hostess knits jumpers for the duck — one for every day of the week. Here I am reminded that the creators of this book had pedagogical interests — this sequence feels like an overt exercise in teaching young children the days of the week.

We see the teaching of the days of the week in a Little Golden Book from around the same era — The Tawny Scrawny Lion. This was also the era of ‘animals who aren’t quite animals but aren’t quite human, either’.

By the time The Cider Duck was published,  half a century had passed since Beatrix Potter, but Potter’s influence remained strong. Reading these stories today, they seem horrific. Sure, the animals seem to live in utopias with beautiful forests full of food, but death lurks behind every corner. There may be food on the ground just waiting for you to enjoy it, but you yourself are food for someone else.

BIG STRUGGLE

The modern reader may find the plucking scene disturbing in itself.

Live plucking causes birds considerable pain and distress. Once their feathers are ripped out, many of the birds, paralyzed with fear, are left with gaping wounds—some even die as a result of the procedure.

Down Production: Birds Abused for Their Feathers, PETA

But in this book from 1969 we are to imagine being plucked as akin to taking one’s clothes off. This is therefore not the Battle scene of the plot.

For that we get a trope borrowed from cosmic horror. I’ve recently seen this trope given a name: ‘Spatial Horror’.

When the Cider Duck wakes up and doesn’t know where she is, she is completely disoriented and falls into a dark hole. (Actually off the table.)

I’d offer this is a picture book example of spatial horror. It also marks the end of the Big Struggle sequence.

ANAGNORISIS

The Anagnorisis phase gives way to the utopian world of the apple orchard. The duck is basically famous now, for her ability to escape death. She becomes a local celebrity.

The anagnorisis in this story is implicit — after admiring herself in jumpers, the duck seems to realise her value. The humans will not eat her, because they have welcomed her into the human world, removing her from the menu. She must realise at some point that she is safe.

NEW SITUATION

The Cider Duck becomes the mascot for the inn. This is her job now.

This is a different take on the rags-to-riches tale — it’s the menu-to-mascot tale.

Blackberries by Thomas Kenneally

blackberries

“Blackberries” is a short story by Thomas Keneally, included in an anthology I got free when buying another book at Dymocks back in 2009. Allen and Unwin have since released a number of short stories from big name Australian authors as eBooks, including “Blackberries”, available for a couple of bucks each.

The marketing copy of “Blackberries” is telling:

Austin North sees himself as a fine English teacher in his local high school. His students respect him, and he finds personal fulfillment in teaching them the power of poetry to move and inspire. However, Austin’s self-perceptions are upset by his infatuation with a young Sudanese girl, a recent immigrant to Australia. When Austin realises that he is just another predator in her difficult journey, he is forced to re-examine his own values and relationships.

When composing cover copy, log lines and premises, writers are encouraged to convey ‘some sense of the outcome’. Here, the publisher reveals the main character’s arc: Don’t worry, this isn’t just another story about a middle-aged man’s hard on for a teenage girl! He does experience a character arc! He learns he’s actually a shit!

Because surely we’ve reached a cultural moment in which a mainstream thinking audience is sick and tired of profiles of ephebophilia, especially those which simply expose rather than critique, as if this phenomenon is new to any reader. As if stories which centre, and therefore prioritise, a man’s erotic desires over a woman’s are new to any reader. The title itself makes me squirm — what might “Blackberries” refer to? Or rather, to whom? Women of colour sexualised as food items is another old-ass trope. So let’s hope it’s not that.

a woman reclines tired in a chair while man looks on
The Argument by Albert Beck Wenzell – Date unknown

But that final sentence of the marketing copy offers hope. Perhaps Thomas Keneally offers an interesting take in “Blackberries”? Annie Proulx is another short story writer who made use of the double-edged symbolism of blackberries in “Heart Songs”. Blackberries are sweet and delicious but also an invasive weed. Proulx’s short story offers a good contrasting text for another reason — Snipe in “Heart Songs” doesn’t change at all.

How does a person realise that his erotic desires are problematic, and impacting others badly? Austin’s character arc interests me, because how often do Anagnorisiss like this occur in reality? And if it does happen, how might we kick it off?

STORYWORLD OF “BLACKBERRIES”

  • Somewhere in the Australian ‘bush’, which means rural area — oftentimes there’s little in the way of shrubbery. (This perplexed me when I first arrived here.)
  • In this particular part of the New South Wales ‘bush’ there are a number of refugees, notably from Southern Sudan.
  • In small towns in New South Wales (I live in one myself), sport is important. To be good at sport gives you lots of prestige.
  • Refugees and immigrants have together formed the local Sudanese committee which helps new Australians settle. This has been started by an engineer (highly skilled immigrant not refugee) from Sudan. His name is David Malwai.
  • Most of the Sudanese immigrants are Coptic Christians.
  • Some of the teenage Sudanese boys are starting to form gangs but are still ‘better behaved than some of the Aboriginal young’. (The unseen narrator is therefore white.)

MAIN CHARACTERS OF “BLACKBERRIES”

  • Austin North, English teacher
  • David Malwai, Sudanese engineer
  • Miriam Salong, gifted runner
  • Meredith North, Austin’s wife, council worker

STORY STRUCTURE OF “BLACKBERRIES”

SHORTCOMING

Austin North sees himself as a fine English teacher in his local high school.

This is a character who doesn’t see anything wrong with himself, morally, ethically. The world’s reaction to him generally props up this self-image. Keneally shows Austin as king of his arena — enjoying the repartee with the boys (while ignoring the girls, assuming they will simply leave school and get pregnant).

— Because they are soft, poor things, said Angela Yankovich, a bright kid who was a member of some evangelical church group, at least for now. Austin had a feeling that it wouldn’t last. In six months time she would forget all that and be the girlfriend of some town hoon whom she’d think the smartest thing she’d ever met and who might steal her future from her.
— Exactly right, said Austin, more to reinforce her than because she had got the point of the poem

The name Austin derives from older names meaning “exalted, venerable”. What about his surname, North? Could the symbolism of cardinal direction be relevant here?

To cut it short, Austin North is an old school sexist, misogynist. “Blackberries” is not a comfortable read and isn’t meant to be. But the narrator, pulling away from Austin’s point of view, assures us that he’s good at his job:

Austin had a reputation as an excellent English teacher. Even the kids who pretended to get nothing out of his classes often got plenty. It was a game they played, him and them, arguing the usefulness of poetry year by year. He enjoyed the tussle — it was better than having a class full of obedient automatons who took notes frantically. And in every class, you saw a girl here, a boy there, suddenly becoming intoxicated with words. Softly and humbly…

But is it possible to be a good teacher and also a teacher who sexually objectifies female students? Isn’t ‘respecting every student as a child without assuming for them a dismal future’ a necessary element of ‘good teacher’, without which you are a ‘shit teacher’?

I push on with that question in mind.

DESIRE

On the scale of self-awareness, Austin is right up there. He’s an English teacher, so he knows all about Lolita, and he sees disturbing shades of Humbert Humbert in himself.

So although he feels this attraction for the Sudanese student, he doesn’t want it.

OPPONENT

The opening scene sets up a classroom in which Austin’s bright year tens are his opponents, but with the arrival of Miriam Salong, Austin has a new type of opposition — and he’s very uncomfortable with this one.

PLAN

So far, so good. Austin proves himself a Good Guy, right?

Except if you’re a teacher you’ll know to suspect a teacher who detains a student after class for no good reason — alone, no less. Austin goes no further than that, but if the story were told from Miriam’s point of view we might learn of her fear.

Even with a narrator who sympathises with Austin, it’s clear that Miriam can see who he is, and has disturbing hints of what he is feeling. This is not a young, naive teenager, but a girl who has seen all kinds of things. I expect she is expert at reading body language, especially when she can’t understand all of the English.

In short, Austin has no plan of action, other to find opportunities to catch time with the object of his affection and to pretend to everyone else that he feels no way at all about Miriam.

In stories like this, other characters must come up with the plan. In this case it’s the school principal, who tasks Austin with the task of persuading Miriam’s parents, via David, to let her wear PE gear.

BIG STRUGGLE

Austin is in constant fear of his infatuation being found out. There is no big Battle preceding his Anagnorisis but there is the proxy big struggle in which he is scalded by the very hot chai. In lieu of a big struggle wound, you see.

ANAGNORISIS

This is one of those short stories — more rare in reality than by reputation — in which the main character sees something small and has a major epiphany:

Miriam walked back into the room in that long school tunic, passed her father and mother, and then turned and sat at her mother’s side. The mother reached out her arm, and Miriam lifted her feet from the floor, tucked them beneath her, and lowered her head in a gesture of utter acceptance onto her mother’s breast, as if it were the source of a beloved authority.

Turning the page, the narrator explains what Austin has realised:

And watching that gesture, that obeisance, Austin saw Miriam’s childhood laid bare to him and found himself in a second humiliated and cured. The heart to which Miriam now listened was the constant clock in the world of flux which had brought her at last here, to this bare suburb, and into his classroom. And seeing Miriam resort this way, with such bodily grace, to the one given of her universe he saw himself with acute pain as simply another predator, as one with the soldiers and militias who came storming in, maiming and demeaning, carrying off cattle and burning the grain. His obsession had reduced him to the role of just another plunderer.

Though instantly reborn, he could tell at once that he was somehow a diminished man, frightened, cured but suffering the most bitter doubt about what he had not doubted before — his effectuality on earth, his equilibrium as a friend to humankind, a friend of poetry, an acquaintance of history.

NEW SITUATION

Austin is sick of teaching. He asks his wife if the council (where she works) has any openings for gardeners and groundsmen, and he is serious.

He was all right while he was actually in class. It was between classes that shame and self-knowledge corroded him. He was aware he was not the sociable man he once was, and his colleagues, he could see, were bemused by this.

Meanwhile, Miriam wears modest PE clothes and breaks the NSW record.


So, what do you think? Do you buy that character arc? Might a man be cured of his inappropriate erotic thoughts by suddenly seeing a child as… a child?

I remain uncomfortable with this story. I’m uncomfortable with the title, with the unspoken whiteness as unchallenged default, and with the unseen narrator who makes value judgements about Austin which, in an excellent story, would be left to the reader.

For that reason, I may have appreciated “Blackberries” a little more if it had been written with first person narration, with the possibly unreliable Austin as narrator, rather than Keneally’s ambiguously-reliable unseen narrator, positioned as moral authority owing to his omniscient scope.

Ultimately, of course, we already have a massive corpus of stories about grown-ass men who get the hots for nubile young women and learn something valuable about life and themselves. That in itself is the story. Keneally uses Lolita as an intertextual example — he knows what he’s done here — but why bother?

Is there really a single new thing to be said on that topic? And no matter how well it is written, how poetic the epiphany, can a modern story like that ever be really great?

thumbs_up_down

Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

Header photo by Shelley Pauls

Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan

a crab walking on black cracked earth

“Singing My Sister Down” is a horror short story by Australian author Margo Lanagan. Find it in Lanagan’s collection Black Juice, published by Allen and Unwin. Black Juice was published in 2004, but “Singing My Sister Down” has proven especially resonant with readers, anthologised numerous times since. “Singing My Sister Down” is now a modern Australian short story classic.

Reading it again today, I stop halfway through and watch a Cookie Monster skit which has blessedly come through my Twitter feed. It’s just too much. I can’t think of many short stories this intense, though “Brokeback Mountain” is another (more so than the film).

OTHER creepy short stories TO COMPARE AND CONTRAST

The collection Black Juice is sold as young adult fiction, but I suspect that’s a decision especially relevant to small book markets like Australia, in which publishers convince high school English teachers all over the country to buy class sets. Another Australian author marketed as young adult is Sonya Hartnett, but I can’t pinpoint what, in the stories themselves, makes Hartnett’s work YA.

Anyhow, the marketing strategy works, because Black Juice has since become a set text for many Australian high school students.

Meanwhile, American students enjoy a story with a similar vibe: “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.

I went to school in New Zealand. Our resonant horror short story in senior English class was “King Bait” by Keri Hulme — a similarly pessimistic commentary on what can happen when a small community comes together for an event.

But this is the most harrowing of them all. What makes “Singing My Sister Down” so damn memorable and scary? (And what makes it attractive to English teachers?)

THE HORRIFIC PLOT OF “SINGING MY SISTER DOWN”

NARRATION

The story is narrated from the point of view of a brother, who is charged with the task of playing music at his sister’s murder. We don’t know how much time has elapsed between the event and his retelling of it. He could be recounting the story many years into the future, or it might have just happened. He appears to be retelling the story as a way of understanding it. This is generally the case for storyteller narrators. All through the ‘ceremony’ he knew something was off, but was powerless to stop any of it.

SHORTCOMING

“Singing My Sister Down” is the story of a community rather than of an individual. The Moral Shortcoming of this community: Their traditions include abject cruelty.

The Shortcoming of each of its inhabitants: They cannot see a way out of this ritual. This is what they know. They don’t think to question it.

DESIRE

This is where “Singing My Sister Down” stands out over many other types of horror stories, some of which I don’t find scary at all.

There is no Desire to rescue this girl from the tar pit. (Not from the characters within the setting, that is.)

This defies our expectation of narrative in general. The vast majority of stories with a similar setting would take a different path. The twentieth century taught us to expect men rushing in to save a girl from sinking into quicksand.

But here, that hero trope is subverted. NO ONE is coming to rescue this girl. As reader, I feel this really frustrating glass wall between myself and the setting. There’s no way I can dive into the book and do something. Please, won’t somebody do something?

The desire of the family is to see Ikky accept her punishment of slow and sadistic death, and to make this murder (coded by the characters as fair and just punishment) follow the community’s customs around death, because they only get one chance to say goodbye.

OPPONENT

The Opposition that exists in “Singing My Sister Down” is not so much between the characters themselves. Technically, there is an opposition between Ikky and the rest of her community, because presumably she’d rather not be killed in this fashion. She has spent the recent days ‘sulking’ — understatement of the story.

Yet Ikky is grimly accepting of her punishment, indoctrinated by a culture which says this is the way things go. There is some mild opposition between Ikky and the aunt, who cannot face the tar-pit ceremony, but because the aunt remains off the page, this is a soft oppositional web.

There has been a big Battle which took place off the page — the axe fight in which Ikky killed someone. Off-the-page opponents can be scary too.

Regarding the hints about how Ikky got here: She was a newlywed. She killed someone with an axe. I extrapolate that she killed her new husband with an axe. Based on statistics around women who murder men, there was very likely a self-defence element at the base of Ikky’s crime.

In the 20 per cent of murders committed by women, over two-thirds were women killing men who had been abusing them.

Sydney Morning Herald

This reader’s sympathy is therefore with Ikky.

This is a horrifically soft Opposition in this story, given the life-and-death situation. This in itself is a subversion. We expect people (and characters) to fight tooth and nail to save their own lives.

I’ve watched enough true crime shows to know that people usually do fight to the death, and will injure themselves severely in the hope of saving their own lives. Survival instinct kicks in. Another thing I’ve learned from a true crime show: Prisoners on death row don’t eat their last meals. Prison guards ask what they’d like and do an excellent job of preparing the meals. They know the prisoners won’t touch it, then they’ll eat it themselves. This was mentioned in a documentary about a serial killer — presumed psychopathic. This guy stood out from all the other (probably psychopathic) prisoners facing imminent execution in America because he indeed ate his last meal, and seemed to enjoy it. Evidence of his lack of humanity. (I figure this is why baddies so often eat apples and sandwiches after committing  horrific crimes in stories. Normal people couldn’t eat a thing at a time like that. In fact we’d do the opposite of eat — we’d throw up.)

Ikky in “Singing My Sister Down” eats her last meal of crab meat as she sinks into the tar pit. I don’t believe this is realistic, but it is horrific. And mimesis is over-rated — I believe there is a symbolic reason for the crab meat, and also for her eating it.

THE SYMBOLISM OF CRUSTACEANS

What’s with the crabs, I wonder? I just read another short story with crabs by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings“, in which the magical realist setting opens with an invasion of crabs coming in from the sea to inhabit the human habitat. In that story, land meets the sea as earth meets heaven (an angel falls to earth and is not as ‘angelic’ as everyone expected).

But in “Singing My Sister Down”, is there any symbolic significance regarding the crab meat? I personally find crabs creepy. They’re like the huntsman spiders of the sea. They have too many legs. They walk sideways. Their eyes are entirely black and stick up on stalks. There is nothing cute about a crab. Worst of all are the pinchers. Even a cooked crab gives me the willies.

Actually there is one thing worse than crabs on the beach. And that’s live crabs dropped alive into boiling water. I have no empathy for a crab walking along the beach, but as soon as a chef throws a crustacean into water, suddenly I’m horrified.

Time and again, throughout history, the same pattern happens: Studies eventually show that animals apart from humans feel far more than we thought they did. Same with crabs.

Normally this discussion is around lobsters.

Robert Elwood once boiled a lobster alive – lobsters being one of the few creatures we eat that we are allowed to slaughter at home. It is the usual way to kill, and cook, them. “Would I boil a lobster now?” asks Elwood, emeritus professor at the school of biological sciences at Queen’s University Belfast, referring to the work he has done for more than a decade on crustaceans and pain. “I wouldn’t. I would kill it before boiling.” […]

The argument is: we know the areas involved in pain experienced in humans; if you don’t have those areas, you can’t feel pain. But it’s quite clear that, in evolution, completely different structures have arisen to have exactly the same function – crustaceans don’t have a visual cortex anything like that of a human, but they can see. Given the evolutionary advantage of experiencing pain, there is no reason to assume they should not have this protection against tissue damage.”

Is it wrong to boil lobsters alive? from The Guardian

Why should this even be surprising to us at this point?

It’s illegal to boil crustaceans alive in my home country of New Zealand; Australia is progressing more slowly, state by state. When “Singing My Sister Down” was published, this worldwide trend had yet to begin.

Do I think that’s the main message of “Singing My Sister Down?” That we shouldn’t cook crustaceans alive because we wouldn’t cook a human alive in a tar-pit? Nope. Don’t think that. But that’s where the crab thing took me.

Crustaceans aside, the most disturbing opposition in “Singing My Sister Down” exists not between the characters themselves, but between the story and the audience. We desperately want someone to step in and stop this from happening. Nobody does.

We might say the opposition = the setting. There is a freaky robo-fate to how this ceremony plays out, akin to the ‘mechanical behaviour’ trope found so often in horror.

Weirdly, the ‘mechanical behaviour’ trope is found also in comedy. A comedy example is Roy asking “Have you turned it off and on again?” on The I.T. Crowd. At one point the ‘mechanical-ness’ of this act is exploited in full, when Roy hooks up an actual tape recorder to do his entire job. Most commonly, the character with mechanical behaviour has an element of the fussbudget about them.

In horror the mechanical behaviour of the villain exposes his lack of humanity. You can’t reason with such a character. Worst of all, you can’t kill something mechanical — horror monsters keep coming back and back and back.

But here, the setting itself — the culture of this messed up little community — is the force which propels this girl’s family to go ahead with her murder. This, in my view, is the most horrific form of mechanical behaviour there is.

PLAN

There is no plan to rescue Ikky. The Plan is to carry out the tar-pit sinking in customary fashion. The bulk of the detail in “Singing My Sister Down” is around the rituals, and a blow-by-blow description of the sinking.

The narrator might easily be describing a wedding, which also involves music and flower wreaths. Indeed, there has recently been a wedding.

‘Well, this party’s going to be almost as good, ’cause it’s got children. And look what else!’ And she reached for the next ice-basket.

This juxtaposition evokes unease in the reader. Births, deaths, marriages… all completely different things… all involve similar ritual.

BIG STRUGGLE

We know what the climax is going to be, which is why it’s so horrible. It’s one thing to be almost ‘cuddled’ warmly by the tar. It’s another thing to suffocate in the damn stuff.

It is nightfall before this happens. Because the story is narrated by the brother onlooker, his memory of the exact moment is clouded. ‘… and they tell me I made an awful noise…’ The setting seems to come alive — setting becomes a character in its own right with the flowers ‘nodding in the lamplight’. The setting itself has already been established as the main opposition (the cultural milieu rather than, say, weather elements a la a disaster story). So an ‘aliveness’ is entirely appropriate at this point.

ANAGNORISIS

If we were expecting an ending with a sense of hope, this story lets us down. No one steps in to save this young woman.

The narrator says finally that he ‘will never understand’. He experiences no Anagnorisis, at least not the kind we hope he will have — that this was a terrible thing that happened. What if he did realise that? What if he realised the injustice of it? It’s not in his best interests to think too hard about this ritual, otherwise he might spend the rest of his life berating himself for failing to step in and save Ikky.

By dashing our expectations, the reader may instead experience the revelation — that when communities come together, humans are capable of the most heinous acts. But we know that already, perhaps.

There is nothing in this story that hasn’t happened somewhere at some point in human history. The details may be different, but during the European witch craze, women (and across Europe, plenty of men) were burned alive with the consent of entire communities. We have far more recent examples, most notably from WW2, but into the present.

DEATH

Characters in stories die frequently. Sometimes it’s no more than a plot feature. In other stories, death becomes thematically significant. This is one of those stories.

The sinking itself takes place over a day, thereabouts. Symbolically, stories which take place over 24 hours tend to be a compressed insight into a single human lifespan. This is how Ikky can eat. We all eat to stay alive, all the while knowing we’re still going to die.

More on that, then. At the beginning of this story, Ikky, her family and her entire community knows she is going to die. Slowly. Horrifyingly slowly. But isn’t that the case for all of us? We all know that we ourselves are going to die. Not today, probably, but someday. Life itself is a horrifyingly slow death.

We don’t know this as children. Even after learning everybody dies, children have difficulty with the concept that they themselves will one day be dead. We can’t imagine not existing. We have equal difficulty imagining not being born. If you have kids, they’ve probably asked you: “Where was I when I wasn’t born?”

Then we hit the teen years, or perhaps the 20s, and the concept of death really sinks in. (Heh.) Heidegger called this part of human development Being-toward-death: The ‘moment’ (more likely an extended period) in which we come to understand that we ourselves will die — that from the point of conception we’ve all begun the journey towards death.

Marketing reasons aside, this aspect, even more than the age of the characters, is perhaps what makes “Singing My Sister Down” a genuinely young adult story.

NEW SITUATION

Since the narrator has learned nothing, this tradition of tar-pit murders will continue inside the setting.

But I believe this narrator is wilfully avoiding his Anagnorisis — that he could’ve done something to stop it.

Wilful ignorance is another fascinating aspect of being human, and “Singing My Sister Down” could be used as a deep-dive into that.

Instead, let’s go nitty-gritty.

THE CREEPY NARRATIVE VOICE OF “SINGING MY SISTER DOWN”

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson shocked and angered many American readers when first published because the opening seemed to promise a cosy depiction of a bucolic community coming together for an annual event, then did the old switcheroo and turned into a horror. Part of this was to do with the narrative voice — conversational and cosy.

I doubt the reader would be fooled by Lanagan’s story, which is creepy from the get-go. I suspect the diction feels creepy partly because of the uncanny valley effect — English, but not quite English. The voice feels almost translated from an unknown language, and because we don’t know where this is set, or which language is spoken, it could be anywhere.

It could happen where you are, right now.

How does Lanagan create this creepy narrative voice?

LEAVING OUT WORDS – JUST LEAVING THEM OUT

‘Yes, Bard Jo.’ Dot sat himself to listen.

I would most naturally say ‘Dot sat himself DOWN to listen.’ But this is an idiomatic expression and we don’t really need the ‘down’ of ‘sit down’, do we? I wonder if she crossed it out during a revision or if she never wrote the word in the first place.

invented WORDS

We don’t know how she fits all that into her days, but she does, and all the time she’s humming and thrumming.

The onomatopoeic word ‘thrumming’ creates a nice rhyme, and lends the voice a poetic feel. The word seems to vibrate right through you, in a mimetic way.

Also: ‘tea-tent’, ‘a mystery child’, ‘his house’s smoke hole’ (obviously in lieu of a chimney), middlehood (instead of ‘middle age’), and so on and so forth, right the way through the story.

INSERTING PREPOSITIONS AND ARTICLES IN UNEXPECTED PLACES

he wears the comfortable robes

Note use of ‘the’. I might have written ‘he wears comfortable robes’, but by making use of ‘the’, it is taken for granted that there is a division of robes – some are comfortable and others are probably worn on formal occasions. ‘The’ adds to the verisimilitude of the story by suggesting everyone is already in possession of this fact.

OLD WORDS IN NEW COMBINATIONS

Dot saw the women bent to the vegetable fields.

In my dialect of English, I have never used the phrase ‘bent to’. I would probably make use of some phrase more wordy, like ‘Dot saw the women bending down to tend the vegetable fields.’ But I like Lanagan’s phrase much better. Not only does she manage to convey an idea succinctly, she creates a new ‘idiomatic expression’ – one that’s not idiomatic in OUR world, but one which the reader can easily take as idiomatic in this fantasy world of the story. Since the phrase is slightly out of whack in English, it’s like this story has been translated from another language. This adds to the fantastic mood.

Also: ‘talking wisdom with the Bard’, ‘made a bitter laugh in his throat’ (not ‘laughed bitterly in his throat’, which would be hackneyed), ‘weaves song stuff’, ‘grilled bean pats’ for breakfast.

CREATIVE GRAMMAR

And when that’s quieted, we can hear Anneh and Robbreh again, steady in their song.

Sure, ‘quiet’ is both an adjective and a verb in English, but when it’s a verb it’s usually used as a transitive verb (i.e. it takes an object) as in, ‘The teacher quieted the students’. When ‘quiet’ is used as an intransitive verb (i.e. without an object), as it is here, it’s usually used in the phrase ‘quiet down‘, e.g. ‘The students quieted down.’ So Lanagan has used a transitive verb as an intransitive verb and dropped the bit which makes it a phrasal verb.

Also: ‘they SAW television’ (instead of watched).

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Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

Header photo by TR Davis