On the east coast of Tasmania where the world's sunshine is doled out in full measure, there stands a gaunt, solid house of stone. Pine trees protect...moreOn the east coast of Tasmania where the world's sunshine is doled out in full measure, there stands a gaunt, solid house of stone. Pine trees protect it on three sides from wind and sea breezes; the fourth side faces the sea.
So begins A Fortune for the Brave, where we are introduced first to the house called Fipwood and then its occupants, the four Gogud children and their mother, the nice but vague and clueless Myrtle. Once a large estate, the land has been sold off and Fipwood, originally built by convicts, is shabby and becoming run-down. The Gogud children - handsome Lloyd who thinks very highly of himself; pretty but sour-tempered Gina; smarty-pants Prosper and the youngest, Theodore, or "Tacky" as he's called, who follows where Pros leads - have a new plan for the summer holidays. Lloyd has learned that the survivor of a well-known shipwreck off the coast, an old Dane called Olaf, hid some treasure from the Rua Rua on one of the small islands there. The only person Olaf told was Dr Trivett, after the good doctor saved his life.
Dr Trivett is dead now, but his son is alive and well, an orphan living in England under the care of guardians. They hope that this son, Huon Trivett, has, amongst his father's things, a map to the treasure - in a delirious state, elderly Olaf told Lloyd where to find the treasure, but not which island it's on. They busily formulate a plan that consists of enlisting their friend, Ernest Seward, who's friends with Jacko Burlington who sails his father's yacht, and decide on a time to go looking for the treasure and a way of keeping their mother occupied while they're gone.
In England, Huon Trivett has finished school with failing grades and has no real plans or ideas of what to do with himself next. The arrival of Mr Seward, neighbour of the Goguds and prosperous landowner and sheep farmer, on the houseboat on the River Thames where Huon lives with Mark and Phoebe Writhen, is a surprise to all, as is his offer of employment to Huon. Mr Seward likes the look of young Huon and downplays his aunt Myrtle's invitation to stay at Fipwood ("I rather doubt whether he would fit into that household for long") while offering him the post of jackaroo at Cottlestone instead. In fact, Huon can have his seat on the plane headed to Australia, as Mr Seward's wife and his daughter, Barbara, want him to accompany them on their own European tour by steamer.
Huon accepts the offer, and accepts the invitation to stay at Fipwood until Mr Seward returns around Christmastime. He's a good-natured, friendly lad and is taken aback by the unwelcoming - nay, cold and hostile reception from his cousins. His aunt is affable and welcoming but has no idea what her children get up to, only thinks the world of them and would like to offer them better opportunities in life. Huon brings with him his father's journal, which does indeed contain a map of treasure and a description of the island where it's located, ending with the words "A fortune for the brave, but have I the courage--" Huon, aware that his cousins have asked after the map via Barbara Seward, offers to show it to Gina, but Gina is so put out and hostile that she pretends they don't need it, only to sneak into his room later and try to find it.
Thanks to his unfriendly reception at Fipwood, Huon goes exploring and discovers their neighbour, Jimmy Stone. Jimmy, a lad his own age, lives with his Scottish mother and his uncle, "Unk", in a small cottage nearby. Jimmy's passion is beekeeping, and he teaches Huon all about keeping bees, different kinds of bees and grades of honey. Huon spends many a happy day helping Jimmy with his bees, but it isn't until he learns from Mr Burlington, a lawyer, that he's inherited an island owned by his father that he's galvanised into action and a desire to thwart his cousins' plans to the treasure.
For Huon, though, the real treasure is the island itself, and what it means to him to have a home, and dreams, and a plan for the future. A fortune for the brave, indeed.
Nan Chauncy ("Chauncy" to rhyme with "Nancy") is a well-known Tasmanian children's writer from the last century, who died in 1970. Born in England in 1900, she migrated to Australia in 1912 and went on to write 14 children's books, among them They Found a Cave (1948) and Devil's Hill (1958) - which (along with other novels) was made into a film called Devil's Mountain which I remember watching (and loving) in primary school. In fact, I've never been able to forget it and I've always wanted to read one of her books. This lovely old edition is my mother's, who's had it since Christmas 1960, and knowing my interest in Australian (and Tasmanian) literature and my efforts this month to read Aussie books for AusReading Month, she lent it to me.
It's always very interesting, to me, to see how much the English language and writing styles have changed over the decades. Originally written for children (which would have included teens - "Young Adult" being a relatively recent publishing niche), I think kids and teens today would have a bit of a hard time reading this. As an adult, I found it took a while to get into the style, which is distinctly "old-fashioned" and very much grounded in the period it was written in. Makes you realise how, in historical fiction today, authors don't really recreate the way people would have spoken "back then" because we would struggle to read it! But by no means do I want to give the impression that the writing is old-fashioned in the sense of being formal, or restrained, or - god forbid - dull. It is full of humour, rich in atmosphere and setting, and alive with realistic characters and believable adventure.
The Gogud children are really quite horrid. There's no other word that fits them better than "horrid". Lloyd is vain and superior, and puts the charm on thick when he wants something - Huon dislikes the fakery and it really does put you off him. Gina, only slightly older than Huon, has been soured from living in a remote, isolated house and having to manage so much of its upkeep - she dreams of owning a fashionable dress and being seen. Prosper is a real piece of work, having brains but no outlet except to cause mischief. Tacky has the makings of a nice kid, since he's young enough not to be fixed, but with no father-figure and an older brother who takes advantage of him, he's just as problematic. Yet they work together well - they really only have each other, after all, and they're "thick as thieves", as the saying goes. Very loyal to each other, no matter what. And they harbour great pretensions: pretension to wealth and status that their current situation cannot support.
Huon is very different. He's extremely likeable, and is a wonderful bridge to his world for the modern reader. He sees things differently from the locals, and his observations and thoughts are peppered with insights that we can relate to, like in this scene as he tours Cottlestone with Mr Seward's eldest son, Neal:
'What's this - like a dark smudge over here?' 'Ah, that's the Plantation. That's Dad's great pride - pine trees to make a breakwind, you know, and for timber!' 'It looks as though you cleared out the native trees and then planted pine trees in their place?' exclaimed Hu. Neal saw nothing strange in this and agreed without a smile. 'That's right. Now, we'll hop in the utility and I'll take you a run round and you'll see everything. The shearing shed is almost new - electric machines and all the latest gadgets.' [p.78]
Huon is a wonderful hero and a great character, but it's when he's with Jimmy Stone that he really comes to life - and it's quite possible that Jimmy is the real scene-stealer here. When we first meet Jimmy, he appears to Huon as an old bearded man - except that the hair on his head is fair and the beard, which comes down to mid-chest, is black. As he comes closer, Huon realises that the beard is actually made up entirely of bees! Jimmy is, it turns out, moving his "swarm" of bees, and has a camera ready to go to take a photo of it for the picture prize offered by the apiarists' magazine that he reads (three quid for a photo of bees swarming in an unusual place). Huon takes the photos and so begins their friendship. The two characters play off each other wonderfully, and Jimmy's enthusiasm for bees is catching.
As is Chauncy's enthusiasm for her local setting. Having grown up in Tasmania, it resonated with me on a deeply personal level, but even without that connection, her descriptions and sense of place are vivid. The east coast of Tasmania isn't just a setting, it's very much an intricate part of the story. For me, it came with deeper layers of unspoken meaning, things left unsaid but discernible to, perhaps, local readers or anyone with an ear to it. Issues of colonisation, white settlement and the noticeably absent Aborigines flirt with the narrative, as do themes of class and family dynamics. Huon, an orphan, barely remembers his parents, who died in England during World War II. His Tasmanian family will never be friends, but it is through the unexpected inheritance of an island that Huon at last connects with his dead father, and finds a kind of home, or sense of place.
This is something I felt I could relate to - not inheriting an island, nor am I an orphan - but the homecoming, that I can distinctly relate to. I also loved the presence of bees and beekeeping, as I love bees, especially honey bees, and wouldn't mind learning beekeeping myself one day. As an adventure story, it was often exciting but not relentlessly so; it worked up to a gripping climax and show-down between Huon and his cousins; and naturally it doesn't follow a neat, straight line. There's a bit of mystery, there's clue-hunting, there's the play of friends-and-enemies, and ultimately it's a genuine coming-of-age story for Huon.
It's the year 6036, and thirty-three year old Fran is regretting leaving her comfortable, if dull, life in Adelaide for a colonising expedition in spa...moreIt's the year 6036, and thirty-three year old Fran is regretting leaving her comfortable, if dull, life in Adelaide for a colonising expedition in space. Her ship has been captured, she's separated from almost all of her fellow space-settlers, and the future looks dire. Locked up in a bare cell with a number of other females from different species on the planet of Olman, Fran can only keep young Margaret company as they listen to the sounds of alien warriors being tortured in a nearby cell.
Fran isn't one for sitting down and taking it, though, and she riles up the others to think of escape and freedom. One of her cellmates has an idea, but it requires Fran's willing participation. The warriors are Darkons, and while at the moment they're barely surviving, if they are awakened, sexually, then they become almost invincible. They would certainly be their best bet at escape.
There aren't many options available, and as one of the only human females there, it's up to Fran to awaken the warriors. At the time, she's thinking mostly of escaping this hell-hole, but all too soon the reality of what she's unwittingly committed herself to becomes clear.
I have to be clear: I haven't read Legend Beyond the Stars, the full-length story that begins this series and establishes the whole premise, and I think my reading of this novella suffered for it. The problem was that this was too short a story - too short to explain things, establish anything, create a clear context or even develop the characters. I feel a bit unfair, but all I can do is speak of my experience reading this novella.
While Fran's situation is explained, albeit in short detail, the broader context is missing. There's no explanation for why her ship was captured and all the colonisers imprisoned, or why any of the other females were locked up either. I don't think this would be explained in the first book. There're hints that there is a major inter-galactic war going on, when one of the aliens mentions that the Darkons are resisting and the Elite Guards of Olman are planning a major strike against the Darkon home world. But nothing is explained, and without the right context the scenario of Awakening the Warriors didn't quite hold up. I would hope that the first book fills in these gaps.
But let's take this as the erotic space-opera novella it is. It has a conventional, simple plot structure divided into three short sections: the prison, where Fran sexually awakens the warriors, and from which they flee amid much gunfire; on board the ship they escape on; and the last stage on the space station where Fran and Margaret are nearly captured again. There's not a whole lot to it, which made me think that I prefer longer stories to novellas. But mostly I was disappointed by how formulaic it was. I've read quite a few stories generally classified as Paranormal Romance, and this shared many of the same tropes. The Darkon Warriors could have been alpha vampires, or werewolves. The two Darkon who survive and are awakened by Fran are called Jarrell and Quain. Jarrell is younger, sweeter; Quain is older and very alpha - macho, even.
Since this is a novella, there isn't all that much sex in it - two scenes only, though with two men involved it feels like more. Again, the condensed nature of the novella format made the lusty writing come across as a wee bit silly. I often had to stop myself from rolling my eyes and work at going along with it. Again, the problem with a novella is how squished it feels, how rushed the sexual attraction and progression becomes, and how dependent the story is on romance conventions and familiar language. If you had enjoyed the first book and got into the world-building and set-up, it would be easier to enjoy this for its own sake and not worry about any of these quibbles. I didn't realise it was a sequel or a novella until I started reading it, but for all my criticisms, there were enjoyable elements to this story.
Fran is likeable, she rises to the occasion and becomes a strong heroine. She's got a sense of humour, and she doesn't over-think things or get self-indulgent in her thoughts and reflections. The writing is capable and flows well, and regardless of how corny you might find some of the lines, they are fun and Gilchrist made an effort to add a dash of originality. I found myself more curious about the world and its politics then this short story allowed, and rather wish there was a more serious, lengthy story available that really developed it. It makes me both interested in reading Legend Beyond the Stars but also wary, afraid that my questions won't be explained and I'll come out of it even more confused and frustrated.
Aside from anything else, this is a snappy and exciting story. The fast pace and novella format don't allow for dull moments, and the sex is quite steamy. Unfortunately, the Darkon warriors are under-developed as characters, and come across as mere muscle-men-with-demanding-cocks. Like any other intelligent woman, I find that sexy men are only sexy when they have personality and some brains, too. So overall, this was a frustrating mix of good and unsatisfying, exciting and disappointing.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.(less)
In 1984, when he was twelve years old, Andy was sent to Wakma Reception Centre in Ballarat because Wakma Reception Centre was the type of place kids l...moreIn 1984, when he was twelve years old, Andy was sent to Wakma Reception Centre in Ballarat because Wakma Reception Centre was the type of place kids like Andy got sent. It was the place you went if your dad left your mum high and dry, or put her in hospital for a spell, or they just couldn't afford you. Or if they hated you. You ended up there if the department deemed you 'at risk', or if you'd already risked everything and lost. Nobody stayed there long; it was like a vestibule, a doctor's waiting room. A place you fetched up in until something else came along.
It isn't the first place Andy has been sent to. When he was only ten, his weak-willed mother, Dahlia, allowed her new husband, pony-tailed Victor, to divorce him. He was only adopted, anyway. Unwanted, unloved, isolated, Andy ends up in a place where the young, slightly effeminate social worker, Nigel, took him under his wing. What began as fun weekends trail biking turned into weekends at Nigel's place where the young boys were introduced to cigarettes, drugs and booze - and where Andy was introduced to Nigel's sexual appetites.
Broken, haunted and completely alone, Andy washes up at Wakma after a foster family situation goes badly, and it's there he meets the first person to show him unconditional love. Mary, or "Mez" as she's called, is only twenty-two; a small woman who's endured her own awful experiences at the hands of selfish, entitled men. She is Andy's first real friend, and he easily slips into the practice of thinking of her as his mother. When she leaves for a year of travelling the world, like so many Australians, Andy is taken in by a new foster family, one with a son about his own age. Unfortunately, without explanation (though the truth was that the couple's marriage broke up), Andy is suddenly removed from the home and sent to Ironside in Melbourne. He's only fourteen, and Ironside is not just a "youth training centre", a place where unwanted boys wash up; it's also a remand centre. There are real criminals at Ironside, rapists and murderers, grown men with violent pasts.
At Ironside, the boys live in cells with barred windows, are locked in at night, served bad food and rub shoulders with criminals. It is at Ironside that Andy makes his first friend his own age. Clunky, as he's called, has only a grandfather left, and they're fighting the system to be allowed to live together - something made difficult by his grandfather's history of alcoholism. Later they're joined by a boy nicknamed Spinner, a charismatic but ugly youth who leads Andy astray but teaches him staunchness, and honesty and dignity. It is at Ironside that Andy endures the kind of psychological trauma no child should ever have to experience: watching a cellmate hang himself. It's clear that, while no one knows about the sexual abuse he experienced with Nigel, this faked suicide gone wrong never leads to any kind of therapy or counselling for Andy.
Andy's path begins its new downward trajectory when Spinner, after a Sunday let out of Ironside, convinces Andy and Clunky to abscond, just for the day he says. But several drug deals, drinks and stolen wallets later, Andy doesn't know where he is until he wakes up in a Ballarat police station, strung out and washed up, with Mez there to greet him.
Over the following years, the path repeats itself many times. Absconding, drugs, stolen cars, bad crowd, back in jail again. Every time, Mez is there to catch him and hold him up, but even she starts to despair that the cycle can ever be broken, that Andy could ever have the chance to be the man he could be.
I knew this would be heavy, going in, and I knew it would be heartbreaking. I expected I'd cry quite a lot, but actually it didn't turn me into an emotional mess. Mostly I felt anger, and despair, and empathy. It was a forging kind of read, a story that hardens the heart rather than makes it a soppy mess, and that's just what you need, because it leaves you with a clearer head. I have to warn you, though: this review gets a bit ranty, a bit soap-boxy - sure sign of exactly the kind of emotional and intellectual response Staunch generates in readers.
Oh Andy, poor Andy. Truly - and he is just one boy of hundreds - what he went through, what he experienced, how he ended up, all of it is preventable. This story is a true story, Andy was a real person as are all the other characters, and it is in part inspired by the Forgotten Australians Senate Report, which looked at the fate and experiences of wards between 1930 and 1970. In her afterword, Briggs puts her story into this broader context:
When you read Forgotten Australians, when you read the testimonies, a whole lot of it sounds awfully like the experiences of Andy and other later state wards. Sexual abuse at the hands of a carer; the absence of a proper education; lack of belief, or succour, or affection. Dealing and coping with the horror of childhood. Andy, like so many state wards before his time and after, languished in jail...
When I started this book ... I thought I'd come up with answers to these questions. I haven't. All I have is this: kids need love and family - of whatever stripe - to thrive and grow. Only adults can parent, and many aren't very good at it. But one thing is certain - the state can never parent. When all the kids are waiting at the school gates, no one wants to acknowledge the mother who is cumbersome, impersonal, bureaucratic, twelve storeys high and has a letterhead. [pp. 292-3]
From the very beginning, with the ease with which Victor got rid of him - and for no other reason than that he didn't like him, but bullied and tormented him while Dahlia simply fluttered her hand uselessly - to the sad fact that he never had a social worker, never had anyone talk to him, listen to him, find out anything about him (until Mez, who stepped out of her official role to do so); his file contained short reports on him, terse descriptions of his movements between centres, but nothing about working with him, no attempts were ever made to set him on a healthy, safe path toward adulthood. "No help." [p.160] The state failed him even worse than his adoptive parents did, than his horrible stepfather even.
The letter [Mez] hated most confirmed the end of his wardship. Andy had been done with the government since his fifteenth birthday.
Andrew is still adamant that he wants to be able to go his own way and is confident in being able to do so. Given the firmness and thought put into Andrew's comments, his request for Discharge of Wardship is supported.
Everything possible would seem to have been tried to assist and direct Andrew in the past five years, it is therefore time to try it his own way and allow him the opportunity to make his own plans and carry them through, with voluntary assistance if he chooses to seek it from the networks he knows so well.
It sounds like a shitty ex-girlfriend, thought Mez. Fine. Try it your way. No one had invited Mez to this meeting because she had no official role in Andy's life, despite the fact that she had supported him emotionally and sometimes financially for the past three years. They dumped him. As if he would have said anything else but that he wanted to try it his way. What good had their way done? Andrew had a Grade Six education because they hadn't helped him at school, and no family home because their placement families never stayed around. No family, because they adopted him out to a nutter; and no job, because they didn't give him an education. And no love.
The state was a shithouse parent. And then, she thought, some bastard will have the gall to blame him when he breaks into their bloody car. [pp.160-1]
Aside from the blatantly obvious fact that clearly no one actually cares about these kids - else they would watch over them better, make sure they didn't get taken advantage of by pedophiles like Nigel, or end up in what was essentially a jail when they'd done nothing wrong - the system seems set up to ensure these boys end up exactly where they end up. And then we, us "nice ordinary people" with loving families, an education, a roof over our heads and jobs, we look askance at these kids, these young men. We blame them, and then we dismiss them. All the stupid things they do, the mistakes they make: it's all their fault, we think, because we assume they have the same understanding of life that we do, have had the same childhood experiences and that it's merely a question of "turning their life around".
What gets me is that we know that children need safe, loving, supportive environments in which to thrive (and for sure, going in the extreme opposite direction doesn't help them much either), so who in their right mind thinks that the system set up for these defenceless, unwanted, vulnerable and often abused kids is a good idea? I would never ever want my own son to go anywhere near the places Andy was sent to live in, because I know how bad that would be for him. Briggs mentions that some changes have been made since Andy's time, and there's more of a focus on prevention - keeping them out of the ward system and with their families - but that, when that fails, once they're in the system nothing's changed.
Everything about Andy's story hurts. The picture of a little ten-year-old boy being taken away with no explanation, being divorced from his family, as shitty a family as it is, while his mother tells him he was "too naughty" and must seek forgiveness from God, oh that makes me so mad! And then, when I thought things couldn't get any worse after Nigel's predatory abuse of him - and young boys like Andy are prime targets, so desperate are they for a father figure, a role model, a friend - to see him end up in Ironside! What bloody stupid idiot thought putting young wards into the same place as criminals was a good idea?! These are kids with no role models of their own, no positive father figures, which makes them hugely susceptible not just to abuses but also to learning the "wrong", or destructive, kind of normalcy, the wrong kind of being. And if I can just point out the obvious: make these boys' "home" a jail, with its cement walls, barred windows, locked doors, regimented structure and strip-searches and rules, and it's not surprisingly that it becomes a kind of comfort zone for them. Getting sent to prison when they actually do something wrong isn't much of a punishment: it's their life story. It becomes normalised.
It is, of course, more than just the environment and lack of nurturing that shapes Andy and his friends. It's also the ready access to drugs, the lack of an education (he never finished grade 7), and the comradely community of cons and druggies and shifty types. It's the perfect combination for the creation of a shiftless young criminal stuck in a cycle of drugs, poor decisions, and incarceration.
'You'd hate me if you knew. You'd hate me if you knew what I have to do to survive in here.' He seemed to nod off for a bit. 'Victor was a cunt to me, wasn't he, Mez? I should go get him. When I get out. Need to get it out of my system. Beat the fuck out of him. How come Mum never came for me? No family for me. Feelin' sorry for meself, Mez,' he said decisively. 'I'm letting it get to me, in'I?' He started crying. 'Wasted time. All of me youth. Now I'm old and I'm all screwed-up. Don't want to be in here anymore, Mez.' 'I know, I know.' She'd never heard him talk so much. 'I'm just saying, Mez. I've been trying to stop it in my head. I don't have any blood, don't feel like there's blood in my body. Maybe that's why the drugs. That's why they don't even work no more. They work but... Hard to explain... That's why I get so out of it. Need drugs, sometimes, to stop thinking. I remember Victor beating me up all the time. I think about it all the time. Why didn't Mum stop him?' [p.185]
Brigg's novelisation of Andy's life is highly readable, nicely structured and well plotted. It's not told in straight chronological form, which would lack tension and drama, but organised in such a way that the story builds on our curiosity and empathy and creates more just when you think you know it all. It's not just Andy's story, it's Mez's story too, and it's the story of all those kids - not all of them wards of the state, some just made bad decisions or had bad relationships with their parents or just didn't care - who become druggies and lost causes. Through Andy's story, all of us who've never experienced what they had, who probably just think it's a matter of will power to not do drugs, or stop taking them, who can't understand why they keep making such stupid, stupid mistakes when following the rules of society and law seems so easy for us - all of us gain a clear understanding and an empathetic perspective of those like Andy. Not all of them are as sympathetic as Andy is, but then we don't learn the full stories of many of them.
Overall, it's simply tragic. It doesn't end well. It doesn't make you feel very positive about the situation. What this novel does do, very successfully, is give voice to these "forgotten Australians", these kids who never really had the quality of life that we consider every child to have the right to in our cosy, affluent country. Staunch humanises these wards of the state, sheds a light on their life and opens it up for understanding. And the importance of this shouldn't be underestimated: this book, books like Staunch, this is our education, this is our chance to gain some insight, because without it nothing will ever change, we will never demand change, and we will simply go on creating more juvenile criminals and druggies and "hooligans" that we can dismiss and blame and castigate without guilt or remorse or the slightest smidge of empathy. Staunch is a memorial to kids like Andy, and it is a very powerful, emotionally-intense, moving, thought-provoking one. It taught me plenty, and it should be required reading if we ever want to really consider ourselves to be enlightened thinkers and compassionate civilians. It would be a start, anyway.(less)