Wednesday 12 February 2014

The Simple Gift

The Simple Gift by Steven Herrick (University of Queensland Press)
PB RRP $19.95
ISBN 978 0 7022 3133 9
Reviewed by Jo Antareau

On Steven Herrick’s blog, he stated that his inspiration for The Simple Gift was Bruce Springsteen’s song The Ghost of Tom Joad. As I was reading it, I wondered if Steinbeck was Herrick’s touchstone as he was crafting the narrative. Although set in modern Australia, Herrick covers similar territory to Steinbeck, such as the honour of poverty, the humanity of the most humble and that those who give the most often have nothing themselves.

Told in verse by three different voices, it tells the story of Billy Luckett, a young adult who has drawn life’s short straw. Abused by his father with an absent mother, friendless and failing at school, he chooses to try his luck as a street kid. What might then spiral into a tragedy of substance abuse and crime, Herrick instead takes the story into the unexpected direction of hope and redemption.

Billy ends up living in a disused railway carriage in the town of Bendarat, a thinly disguised Ballarat. He subsists by scavenging on scraps and what he earns for some itinerant work, and revels in his freedom and solitude – days spent between the creek and library. Yet he allows two other souls to enter his life.

Caitlin is a private schoolgirl who annoys her status-conscious parents by mopping floors at Macdonald’s and dreams of the day she turns eighteen and can leave her family. Old Billy, another person who takes advantage of the free accommodation in the disused railway carriages, is an angry man broken by his own tragic past. Yet both are touched by Billy. To Old Bill, he gives the simple gift of a packet of cigarettes, to Caitlin he gives the simple gift of courtesy and a note with the etymology of her name. And with these humble offerings, he starts to reconnect with his fellow humans as each takes tentative steps away from their demons. This is ultimately a story of the healing power of relationships, as the trio all take control of their lives and help Billy in unexpected ways.

Written with sparse language and a light touch, this is YA novel is an uplifting read which I recommend to those who feel disconnected or otherwise alienated from society, and I suggest they read and enjoy it voluntarily before it is imposed on them as a text on the HSC syllabus.


  1. I taught it to Year 11 - it was the only book about which they didn't complain. ;-) last year, a group of Year 7 and 8 students chose it for Literature Circles and LOVED it. Their creative response when finished was to interview the author for my blog, The Great Raven. Check out what he had to say if you're interested.

  2. Hi Sue, So good to hear that the kids really responded to The Simple Gift. It's so important to introduce kids to books that they love rather than what us as adult think they should read.

    Here's a link to the interview of Steven Herrick on Sue's blog:


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