Evan McHugh (2016)
Gosford: Omnibus Books
This novel is a fictional account of events surrounding a true life mass rescue at Sydney's Bondi Beach in 1938. The story is told from the perspective of a 12 year old boy in the form of a diary and covers far more than just the rescue, which occurs quite late in the book. The author, Evan McHugh, is an accomplished non-fiction writer and this is his first novel.
David McCutcheon, who everyone calls Nipper, is initially dismayed when his teacher assigns a diary writing task. He soon warms to the idea and begins to enjoy it, covering a 12 month period by the end of the book. He records the rocky relationship with his teacher, adventures with his friends, and thoughts about the things happening in the world around him. Nipper longs, above all else, to become a surf lifesaver like his Grampa Jack, but is unable to join until he reaches the age of 16. Undeterred, he trains independently in secret, swimming back and forth through the waves early every morning, building up his strength and stamina. His skills are put to use on Black Sunday when 200 people are swept out to sea. While all the lifesavers are busy, Nipper swims out on his own and rescues a woman. It is not until she is safely ashore that Nipper realises who it is he has rescued. In response to his efforts, Nipper's Grampa Jack pulls some strings with the Life Saving Club and Nipper is made an honorary member of the club until he is old enough to qualify for full membership.
Although told in the form of a diary, this story is a detailed historical narrative that brings the period and location to life. It explores many topics including bravery, women's rights, war, refugees and aboriginal issues. Interesting historical details are revealed throughout the narrative, such as the description of the neck to knee bathing costumes worn by both men and women, or Nipper considering leaving school and going to work full time at the age of 12. An additional layer of historical interest is introduced when Nipper becomes good friends with a new arrival in the neighbourhood, Rachel, whose Jewish family has left Germany to escape the increasing racial tensions and the threat of impending war.
This 250 page novel is targeted at primary school-aged children and would suit accomplished readers in upper primary years. It is engaging and entertaining, and would be ideal to read aloud to a class, providing many topics for in-depth discussions. The characters and plot develop significantly over the course of the book and the rich details immerse the reader. It is a moving account of life in the 1930's which I can highly recommend. The book concludes with eight pages of historical notes, and teacher notes are available online.
Stephen Cadusch--Teacher, Pyalong Primary School, Victoria