And Did Those Feet
Longacre Press, $18.99,
Random House, $18.99,
Castaway: The Diary of Samuel Abraham Clark, Disappointment Island, 1907
Here are four good novels for boys on the edge of adulthood, all finalists in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards. All feature the protagonist’s narrative, by now well-established as the rhetorical mode of the novel for young adults. All also strike me as somewhat heavily overshadowed by death – and sometimes the shadow falls right on page one. Yes, I acknowledge the importance of the absent parent in novels for the young. But I find some sneaking regret for the passing away of the “lecture tour in America” – an altogether more genteel and less final way of disposing of Mum and Dad while the young protagonist gets on with growing up. And particularly I have problems with Sandy’s mother’s death in Ted Dawe’s And Did Those Feet – which is a pity, as otherwise I liked this novel a lot.
Sandy’s mum is asthmatic and a smoker and she dies: my reading difficulty is that I inevitably expect the rest of the novel to be about Sandy dealing with his mother’s death. After all, most adults find it hard enough to bounce back after this major trauma, let alone a kid. But the focus of this book is really on sorting things out with Dad – which, judging by three out of four of these books, is the major psychological work of early male adolescence.
When his Dad goes a bit off his head with grief, and the neglected Sandy starts discovering some unpredictable violence lurking within his disturbed self, he is sent away to his cousins’ home, a Taranaki dairy farm. It turns out that Sandy’s uncle and auntie are members of a small religious sect, followers of the writings of William Blake, no less. This delightful fantasy (surely of an unexpectedly literary nature?) cheered me up a lot, and so did Sandy, who, despite his glowering butch presence in the cover design, is actually one of those likeable boys who likes to make jokes.
I warmed to his narrative and his corny humour at the expense of country kids, which, combined with a growing ability to see himself as others see him, and some gnomic advice courtesy of W Blake, provides plenty of reading complexity and amusement to reward both town and country readers. Of course, Dad comes back to himself and to Sandy, in the end, and of course the New Zealand landscape proves to be just as dangerous as it generally is in children’s literature. But when a tramping trip goes badly wrong, young lives are saved only by the timely singing of “Jerusalem” – how satisfying is that? I do not know Dawe’s earlier Thunder Road but will now seek it out.
In Aaron Topp’s Single Fin an older (aged 19) narrator/protagonist also deals with a recent death – in this case, the car-crash killing of his surfing mentor, best buddy and admired hero Mike. This book was a finalist in the young adult section of the awards and deals with more adult issues: after a bad start, Fin sorts himself out, gradually recovering his willingness to surf again, and finding a new friendship with an older man, a new girlfriend, and a kid, another surfing tyro, to mentor in his turn. He even reopens relationships with his mum, severed some time before the book begins.
Fin is fatherless, child of a one-night stand, and uninterested in his un-“real” father. But Mike was clearly something of a father to him, and it’s Mike’s uncle Bobby who now takes on the fathering role and offers Fin the mateship with older men that all four of our authors see as central to boys’ learning and growing. Perhaps death is a pervasive tactic in these books merely in order to teach that Dads can be found in many places and the right DNA is not the most important qualification for the role?
Or is death a way of conferring some life-or-death seriousness on the protagonists’ task of achieving maturity? As in And Did Those Feet, a spiritual dimension is opened up by this book. But here it’s all to do with surfing, and takes itself a lot more seriously than Sandy’s wary negotiations round his aunt’s and uncle’s weird beliefs. Fin’s story took hold of me (there’s a villain, and plenty going on as well as the surfing), but the narrative struck me as a more sensationalised and less complex production than Sandy’s.
Bill O’Brien’s Castaway is the diary of an imaginary lad who takes part in an otherwise genuine historical ordeal, the survival of 15 escapees from the wreck of the Dundonald on the Auckland Islands in March 1907. The story is enormously impressive – the Aucklands have an appalling climate, averaging 11 fine days a year, and wrecks were so common that the New Zealand government maintained a depot with buildings, food and resources on the main island. However, the 16 who manage to get ashore from the Dundonald are stuck on nearby Disappointment Island, with lots of nesting mollyhawks and seals to eat but no trees or natural fibre.
One quickly dies of exposure, but the other survivors’ determined and ingenious struggles produce weatherproof houses, warm clothes, and finally a frail but viable boat which reaches the main island. This is a thrilling tale which a somewhat leaden narrative can neither dull nor destroy, and the shift of focus from personal angst and grief in the two books reviewed above, towards a wider cast of characters, with attention paid to co-operative work and the social responsibilities involved in surviving together as a group, are admirable elements in Castaway.
Whether it’s dairy farming, surfing, the tight mutual reliance of the crew of a sailing ship or the skills of open-road motorcycling, each of these books has a strong idea of acquired competence: an excellent thing in my view, as there’s great importance in offering young readers the reassurance of learning that one can learn. There are things about learning to live on a desert island, though, which make a story hard to beat, and of the four scenarios in these narratives it is the details of survival in the Aucklands that have stayed around to haunt my imagination.
Why both parents should be offered up on the sacrifical pyres of narrative at the outset of Castaway, however, is unclear to me. Newly made an orphan by a house fire, 13-year old Sam Clark decides to work his way to England as a cabin boy on a sailing ship to search out his only surviving family member, an older brother. Might young Sam not have done this anyway, even with both parents alive?
At any rate, I was delighted to note that Callum Jackson in Vince Ford’s Boyznbikes, last of our four heroes and narrators, comes equipped with a full set of parents and doesn’t seem to have lost any family members lately. On the other hand, I can’t say I reacted kindly to the opening of this book, which instantly became my least favourite book-opening ever, even displacing the first sentence of Anna Karenina (which is fatuous and untrue). Callum’s tale begins “Guys are different” and after a portentous paragraph break continues, “Like Dad and Baz and Skid. They ride motorbikes. They drink beer. They pee standing up. When you’re young you mostly hang out with women. They pee sitting down.” (More white space, and page turn.)
I’m irritated to think that reluctant boy readers – who I realise are an important part of Ford’s intended audience – need to be reassured that reading isn’t girly. And I’m irritated by how this beginning situates girl readers. That said, I found Cal’s Big Ride with his dad on his Honda ST1300 ABS a good yarn. It’s true that the Big Ride is an annual act of remembrance for a dead biker friend of dad and his mates, but that seemed to me to situate death about where it belongs in a narrative that’s fundamentally about a boy growing up by sharing time with real grown-up men – and I guess I’ll just have to take Ford’s word for it that the signifying of achieved masculinity includes what I found a rather too frequent emphasis on the penis.
Ford comes across as a writer who knows his audience and knows what he is doing, and I enjoyed Cal’s wry recognition of a situation which has been worrying a few educationalists lately – all the teachers seem to be women, all the principals seem to be men.
The final working out of the story, though, shot me back into the same state of irritation in which I began it. While Cal and Dad were off having a good time, it turns out that mum has been trapped under the house, pregnant, dehydrating, starving, tearing her hands to pieces trying to claw her way out. Cue dad’s overnight ride to the hospital bedside. Female characters in this book seem to be there only to exercise the feelings of the male characters: but then, haven’t I had that feeling about other books before?
Rose Lovell-Smith is an Auckland reviewer.
Single Fin won an Honour Award in the YA category of this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards Children and Young Adults.