Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
This was one of the most interesting, humorous and satisfying books that I have read for some time. Written by Western Australian Craig Silvey, and illustrated with sketches by Sara Acton, this book with its hard cover and dust jacket reminded me of the Readers Digest books. One of this author’s books, Jasper Jones which was released in 2009, is considered a modern Australian classic.
Runt, Silvey’s latest book, is a slight diversion from his previous work. In this book he moves into children’s fiction for readers over eight years of age. But it is not just for young readers. This is a story which can be enjoyed by all as it contains aspects which will resonate with many age groups. With childhood many decades behind me, while reading this book, I often found myself smiling or laughing as I read, and I really appreciated the authors writing style.
For me this was not just a story which I was reading. All the while it felt like the story was being told to me. ‘Annie Shearer lives in the town of Upson Downs. She is eleven years old and short for her age…She lives on a sheep farm with her parents’ (1). I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s humour in his choice of names. Within this cast of characters, there is the rich and greedy landowner Earl Robert-Barren (robber baron) who is diverting and hoarding water and buying up devastated farms; Camilla Crowne-Jewel and Basil Peppercorn, who are commentators at the Krumpett’s Dog Show; Froth, the owner of the town pub, and Fergus Fink, whose ancestors, all with names beginning with F have been successful dog handlers and whose skills Fergus just can’t quite emulate. The names of all the dogs in the competitions are also wonderful and quirky.
Another aspect of this writer’s work that I respected and appreciated was the inclusion of more adult words and concepts which were then explained, and the educational content imbedded in the story. The reader learns facts that they may never have stopped to consider before. Within the storyline there are subtle messages or morals which remined me of Aesop’s Fables such as the fact that people are more important than hoarding/collecting things and that everyone should tread their own path and not feel they must follow anyone else’s destination for them.
At the centre of this story is the Shearer family. They are a very unusual family but a very loving and supportive one. Annie’s brother Max is a daredevil, regularly taking life-threatening risks. He is also a whiz on his computer. Her Dad, Bryan, is a secret botanist, her grandmother, Dolores, a former boxing champ and her Mum, Susie, a baker of humble pies. Things are not going well for this family or anyone in the town, mainly because of the drought and a selfish landholder. It looks like the family could lose the farm.
Annie has always taken it on herself to try to fix things and has her trusty toolbelt on her at all times. She had befriended a stray dog which had become most unpopular with residents because of his thieving ways. The bond between them has become very strong, and Runt has eyes only for Annie. Annie has detected that he has special skills and believes she can use these to save the family farm. However, Runt will only use these skills when no one other than Annie is watching. The story follows the adventures these two encounters as they try to ‘fix’ everything. Annie’s goal is to pay down the mortgage on the mortgage. This endeavour takes Runt, Annie, and her father all the way to London to compete at the Agility Course of the Krumpett’s Dog Show. But there is someone else who is determined to win this prize for himself to finally fulfil his Finkdom so he can be famous. He will stop at nothing to achieve his goal.
There is plenty of love and lots of humour, along with what happens when people become bullies. This is also a story about small town communities. The author himself has said that the novel was an ‘affectionate love letter to country life’.
The book Runt by Craig Silvey is beautifully and quirkily written for everyone. It is the type of book that readers would like to reread several times to discover more of the insights and humour that this book contains.
by Craig Silvey
Illustrated by Sara Acton