Thursday 24 September 2015

Vietnam: My Australian Story

Vietnam: My Australian Story by Deborah Challinor (Scholastic Press)
PB RRP $16.99
ISBN 978-1-76015-042-6

Reviewed by Jenny Heslop

It is the late 1960’s and young Davey Walker can see change happening everywhere. He is starting high school, his brother Tom has been drafted to fight in Vietnam and his mother is acting a little strange. But the surf is still great, and so with his new surfboard, his two best mates, and plenty of new pop songs to sing on the way, Davey spends as much time as possible biking to and from the surf beach.

Vietnam is the fictional diary kept by thirteen year old Davey between September 1968 and January 1970. It is not a story about the Vietnam War, although letters home from Tom with brief descriptions of the war are included in the pages, but rather a picture of Australian culture during this time. And this was a time of social change, anti-war protests, surf-culture, space exploration and music.

I particularly loved the record Davey kept of the songs which were at the top of, or climbing the charts. Davey’s comments about whether it was a song his father liked/hated, his sister loved or his mates were into, really helped form the characters in the story. As music was a very important part of this era, these inclusions gave the story a strong 60’s atmosphere as well as clearly showing the changing face of popular culture.

Diary form is an intimate way to tell someone’s story, but you do have to connect with the diarist for it to work well. It wasn’t hard to connect with Davey. He is involved with family, a loyal friend and a bit of a ‘lad’ - but he is also a complex character, very compassionate and a thinker, trying to make sense of what life has thrown up. After his brother Tom comes home from Vietnam – minus a leg courtesy of a land mine – Davey has to tell his mother Tom is not coming back to live at home.

She said, ‘He’s not our Tom any more, is he?’
I didn’t really know how to answer that. My Tom was probably always different from her Tom. So I said, ‘I think he still loves us.’

The writing is very good. The people, their motivations and their relationships, feel solid and realistic. There is a good balance between social issues, Davey’s inner life and action in the pages of his diary. There is also a good balance between the ups and the downs. While some parts of life turn out great for Davey, other parts are very sad. It did touch a chord with me and there were tears.

My Australian Story is a really solid series and a great way for teenagers and preteens to learn about different periods in Australian history.

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