Reviewed by Gerard Healy
An engaging tale by Alison Lester of two children: a girl and her horse and a boy and his unusual mum. The girl is ten-year-old Biddy who lives on a cattle property close to the ocean in the rugged Gippsland district of Victoria. The other main character, nine-year-old Joe, has had a very strange childhood, alone in the nearby bushland with his mother Joycie.
The story basically follows two arcs. In one, we follow in the hoof-prints of Bella, the beloved pony of ten-year-old Biddy as they set out on a cattle muster for the first time. Biddy’s mum and dad believe she’s reliable enough to accompany them on what is a challenging ride through bush and beach tracks, rounding up cattle that have wintered in the remote valleys.
The other arc introduces a most exceptional mother and her son who have hidden in these remote valleys for years shunning human contact. Joycie’s decision to abandon civilisation is fuelled by the grief and fear generated by the tragic death of her young husband who is killed in a pub fight. Joycie takes her infant son Joe into the bush and tries to cover her tracks so they won’t be discovered.
We then fast-forward nine years to the scene of the cattle drive that Biddy is part of.
The writer has done a grand job of describing the countryside where the story takes place. From the windswept beach crowded with imposing cliffs to the thick scrub surrounding Joycie’s hide-out, Lester has depicted a natural world that provides a rugged backdrop to the ups and downs of the human inhabitants. Biddy is following her missing horse when, “the tracks crossed a shallow creek, fringed with ferns and reeds, then disappeared into a mass of sword grass” (130).
Lester uses over a dozen black and white photos to help readers visualise the various settings, including one of sword grass (129). She also did the simple but effective cover illustration of a girl and her horse. I found the map of The Headland at the start of the book was particularly helpful, as I tried to keep track of where the characters were.
One of the themes of the story is the parent-child relationship and the marked contrast between Biddy’s basically healthy one with her parents and grandpa and Joe’s more problematic one with his fearful mother. While Joycie sees danger and threat in others, Joe is drawn to others. Lester puts this well, when describing Joe shadowing some drovers. “At night he lay in the dark like a hungry dog devouring the scraps of stories and songs that drifted from the campfire” (44).
Will city kids relate to these country kids and their horses, cattle and dogs? I think the link with a favoured pet will be the strongest connection, while the way-of-life of cattle mustering and bush survival will seem exotic to most. Both Biddy and Joe develop strong bonds with their horse and dingo pup respectively and the thought of losing their pet is a crucial turning point in the storyline.
There are other touch points that all kids will recognise, such as school yard humour, comic books, friendships, parental discipline and the confusing adults they sometimes encounter.
Both children face ethical dilemmas in the story. Biddy, while worried over her missing horse, is told by her dad to stay put and mind two other horses. After they bolt away, she sees what she thinks are the tracks of her horse. Should she stay or investigate further?
For Joe it’s theft. He steals an oilskin coat from the drovers to survive the coming winter. More problematic, he also takes a Swiss Army knife, which Joycie punishes him for.
Since the book was first published in 1997, has the story become dated? Todays’ urban parents probably wouldn’t give their children as much freedom or responsibility as these do, but country folk perhaps would. I also wondered if more efficient technology would be put into the search for a young mother and her infant now. Either way, as long as there’s the slim chance that a woman could survive, the personal relationships and child-pet connections in the story stand the test of time well.
Lester’s use of school-yard humour is deft, “You’ll go bum over breakfast”, Dad warns Biddy. (117). Her horse-related language is mostly familiar, although I did have to look up surcingle (72) and the writer uses the occasional better word (luminous, mimic, vertebrae) to stretch her reader’s vocabulary. A feature of the writing is the use of short, sharp sentences that pack a punch. At the end of a strong opening chapter, we’re told that, “She was never going back” (5).
I would recommend this book for upper Primary readers, especially those with a pet, for its engaging story of two very different childhoods in the Australian bush.
Alison Lester was born in 1952 and grew up on a farm similar to the one in this story. She taught Art at Secondary Schools before a successful career as a children’s author/ illustrator. She has won numerous awards for her work including the CBCA Picture Book in 2005 for Are We There Yet? She was the Inaugural Australian Children’s Laureate from 2011 to 2013 and in 2016 she won the Dromkeen Medal. She was awarded an OAM in the 2019 Australia Day Honours. She runs a gallery/ book shop at Fish Creek, Victoria and has three adult children.
The Quicksand Pony
by Alison Lester
Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 978 1 76052 630 6
169 pp; $15.99