Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Sandy is a fifteen year old boy who has grown to adolescence in one of the driest parts of Australia, the mallee country. Eighteen year old Red is Sandy’s brother. Both boys have been part of a nuclear family until the day the boys’ mother was killed in a vehicular accident. Tom is the boys’ father. A man with a wide heart and a generous spirit, he tries to do his best for the boys, but he doesn’t have a clue.
We realise early that the family is not coping and are very sensitive in their denial of that state. Sandy, a lad who shows signs of academic promise, comes closest to realising that his existence is not really the life of a normal fifteen year old.
Sometimes I feel like I’m neither one thing nor another. I live in the Mallee but I don’t like the desert. I live on a farm but I get hayfever and I’m scared of goats. I like school but my best mates don’t. I’m stuck between stuff. It’s like I’m not meant to be here but I am.
Sandy could be very popular among the girls if he were not so painfully nervous. His pairing with Becky on the netball court is just one example:
My legs feel gangly, like I can’t control them and I stick my foot out for balance. Becky spins round and trips over my foot. I realise we’re both going down and without thinking I stick out my arm to hold her as we fall. It’s like everything is happening in slow motion. Somehow we’re both lying on the floor, all tangled up, and I’m spooning her…”Sorry, Becky. You right?” I mumble. She’s wrapped up in my arms.
“Yeah, fine. You?” She whispers and I nod in reply. (89)
He acts with maturity at home. A scene involving a large venomous snake that ends with Tom nursing his tackle is downright hilarious, but doesn’t faze Sandy who almost immediately wanders into the bathroom where Tom is soaking, to discuss whether his education next year should be in a private school.
Each family member is afflicted in some way by the death of the woman of the house. Each fantasizes when endeavouring to understand, but is reluctant to let others know about their concerns. Red turns vulgar and aggressive and badly needs someone to take him in hand and curb his excesses. Sandy senses this, and for once doesn’t hold back what needs to be said:
Sure, but in case you hadn’t noticed we all feel bad. We just don’t take it out on everyone else. You’re not the only one who lost Mum, Red. We all did. You make it really clear how much we annoy you. But you know what? You can be just as annoying. Stop acting like an arsehole (75).
Professional assistance to this disturbed family to help them adjust to the loss of the mother and partner is not available of course. This is the mallee. It is about this time that we suspect that something is not quite right, something that involves both Red and his mother, but the author cleverly leads us away.
Other characters are quite finely drawn. We leave the book united in animosity against Ryan who is the undoubted treacherous villain. As expected the boys are interested in footy and dirt bike riding, and there are conversations among both sexes while they debate the perennial ‘what will they do next year’? There are girls who are no better than they should be, and there are girls innocently finding their way. But the best way to explain the interaction is to describe this community as dynamically alive, versed in the struggle to find answers to common questions in the sand and the dust of the mallee.
Only a teacher/writer like Charlie Archbold could produce a book like this. Those among us who have taught in country towns as young teachers will recognise the character types and the sorts of activities that young kids get up to. Archbold’s teaching under the skies in the bush provides the authenticity that her tale of the Mallee Boys must have.
By Charlie Archbold