Thursday 1 May 2014

By the River

Oh my gosh I just loved this book! I read it in a day- it's really very quick. Only about two hours reading even for me, and I am a ponderously slow reader. 

I think perhaps it was the perfect time for me to read this book. I've read two other Steven Herrick books this year- Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend and The Simple Gift. I liked both of these well enough, and much than I thought I would- I haven't like poetry since high school. Perhaps they primed me to love By the River, and made the perfect preparation for me to read By the River. Although I see that Steven Herrick thinks that it's his favourite

I loved it from the very start, from the very first poem. 

The colour of my town


was Johnny  Barlow
with his lightning fists
that drew blood in a blur.
was Urger,
who stood behind
with crooked teeth,
spitting and cursing,
were Miss Spencer's eyes,
pale and shining,
and finding distant grey
as the taxi drove away. 
was my dad's handkerchief,
pressed into the pocket
above his heart;
a box of handkerchiefs
Mum gave him on his birthday
two week before she died. 
was dry grass all summer,
a dead snake,
cane toads squashed flat,
our house smeared in oil;
nothing that lives,
nothing that shines. 
was Mum's nightgown,
the chalk Miss Carter used
to write my name,
hospital sheets,
and the colour of Linda's cross.

There is just so much there. Some of it, much of it, we can't understand yet. But Green, we can all understand dad keeping the hankies his wife gave him just before she died over his heart. It made me gasp when I read it. 

The  two Herrick books I've read previously both had multiple narrators- here we just hear Harry Hodby's voice. Harry was 7 when his mum died, and he lives with his dad, and younger brother Keith in fairly humble circumstances in small town Queensland in the 1950s and 60s. Dad is a sheet metal worker, and they don't have much money, but he keeps regular hours at work, and is bringing his kids up right. The boys cook and clean and look after the house. They wait for their father to come home so they can eat watermelon with him in the yard every day. They may not wear shoes, and they do the odd larrikin act, but they know right from wrong, they know the value of property, family and friends. I felt like I knew these boys from the start. 

I think perhaps they represent a lost Australian childhood for me. When kids did work for weeks on a billycart- do kids work for weeks on anything anymore? Mine doesn't. Do they cycle three hours to get somewhere? Mine never has- but then I'd never let him. 

By the River is firmly set in Northern Australia, there are many references that tie it down. Goannas. Mangos. Bats. Houses on stilts. Canetoads. 
Cane toads were a big mistake, introduced in the 1930s to help control a beetle that ate sugar cane. They have now spread over much of northern australia and are terrible for our native species. They are still spreading west and south. They are a man made disaster. 

I really, really loved this book, I'm very tempted to read it through again. I even think I'll buy my own copy. My library has an audio version that I've borrowed, and have now listened to it three times driving around town. While I enjoyed the listening experience, and cementing the story in my mind, I'd never heard a verse novel read aloud- I found it somewhat unsettling,  and I much preferred the reading experience. 

By the River was to become the first of a loose trilogy based in small town Australia. You just know that I'm now seeking out Lonesome Howl (published as The Wolf in America), and Cold Skin. Steven says on his website "perhaps of all my books, By the River uses characters and situations that actually occurred". On his blog he tells us that many of the little things in the book are truePerhaps it's that authenticity that makes it such an astonishing read? 


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