November 10, 2015


The best thing about reading is the opportunity to observe, discover, and reflect about somewhere else, and someone else, and maybe begin to imagine yourself in someplace else, with another situation. Some of the very best "old-school" YA novels from 1970's and 80's like A DAY NO PIGS WOULD DIE, by Robert Newton Peck, or Beverley Naidoo's THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TRUTH, or MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN, by Jean Craighead George, these books gave me this kind of informational vibe, told me about things I had no idea about, and just showed me... a piece of the world. TIMBER CREEK STATION reminds me of those slice-of-life first person narratives. Unusual for a contemporary YA novel, this novel is all narrative, a tunnel vision, first person point-of-view - which means that we're treated to the protagonist's opinions on everything, with little deconstruction. Deeper questions about what any of it means are simply not answered, for good or for ill.

This book was first published in 2011 as EVERYBODY JAM (that flavor of jam that "everybody" likes, which is apparently a bizarre way to refer to apricot), and was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

Summary:First his fifteen-year-old brother, Jonny, had a fall from the roof. Six months later, his fourteen-year-old sister falls pregnant - and won't tell anyone how. Thirteen-year-old Danny Dawson is stuck with his sister Emily, who is seven and "useless," and a lot of disturbed, angry, confused feelings about how life is falling apart. Too young to really be of much use to his tough guy, cattleman father, still torn up about his brother's death, conflicted and confused about a new baby, Danny is a ragey, adolescent mess. Add to that the fact that a drought has parched the desert and dried the cattle's watering holes, everyone is stressed, including his parents, who are having major blueys - or fights, and even though they don't have the money to hire more help, really, Mum hires a "house girl" to help out with things while she tries to hold down her job at the clinic, deal with her angry son, and help her too-young and pregnant young daughter to cope. Danny doesn't think he needs a minder, like useless Emily. According to Danny's father, Pommies are useless, too, and Danny wants not one more new person in his life. But Liz, with her "Pommie" - English - ways, her twiggy thin legs and weak arms and her vegetarian diet seems is the only one who talks about Jonny, the only one who asks questions and thinks thoughts that no one else on the station thinks. Danny's not really sure he likes Liz... but sometimes, you just need someone to listen.

The Scoop: Danny is a clear reflection of his rural roots. He has a name for everyone - the English people "Pommies," (a name derived from the joke that they're "Prisoners Of Mother England) the Aboriginal people, or "gins" are, to his mind, always into the grog, bumming, or begging. Sometimes he refers to them as "blackfellas." Danny is an echo of the thoughts and opinions of the menfolk around him and while he attends school with his siblings and a county teacher, he hasn't yet learned to think. Danny's racism and nascent sexism is countered by the presence of the house girl, Liz, an English backpacker who is helping out at the cattle station during the muster, or when the cattle are brought in from the open desert to the market. Though Liz mostly just observes Danny's world with shock, she additionally asks endless questions for clarification - and this allows the reader second thoughts on Danny's problematic version of the world.

The action in the novel is a series of subplots which revolve around getting through the muster and Sissy giving birth. Danny wants to prove himself man enough to fill his brother's shoes, and help his father, but his general immaturity gets in the way. What Sissy wants is unclear. As all things must end, the muster ends and the baby comes, and the English girl goes back to England, and it's just another day in the life of a cattle station, and a growing boy.

NB: While I'm not a fan of glossaries in children's books, nor of the Americanizing of British Commonwealth English, I do think that a fair to say that readers may flail a bit with the Australian slang. There is a great deal of it, and it's only partially explained, as Danny impatiently relates things to Liz. This will call for patient reading.

Readers should know going in that this book has a bit of violent death, a very teen pregnancy, underage drinking, and a very different feel from the sanitized suburban lives most YA novels depict. There are offensive moments which would be disheartening to an Aboriginal person.

Conclusion: This is a difficult book to characterize - it's an absorbing, masterfully written bildungsroman, which depicts a moment in time in the life of a grieving family. It's also a painful, angry story of recovery told from the point of view of an ignorant, racist boy.

The novel shines a light on how each one member of the Dawson family with grief and hard times - Mum and Dad withdraw then blame each other, Sissy finds comfort in a friend, Emily seems too young to do anything but she carefully names each of the orphaned calves and worries about them. Danny makes a shrine of his brother's things until that shrine is lost. Questions like, "Is this family going to recover? Is Danny going to ever be anything but a small-minded racist?" or "Is this junior high education and this cattle station going to be Sissy's whole life?" and "What happens if babies don't really fix everything?" don't really get space in the narrative. Because of this, I suspect this book would be best for older readers, as it will be fodder for a lot of discussion.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Lerner Books. You can find TIMBER CREEK STATION by Ali Lewis at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

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