Sunday 8 October 2023

In times of bushfires and billy buttons

In times of bushfires and billy buttons by Steven Herrick (Ford Street Publishing) PB RRP $19.95 ISBN 9781922696366

Reviewed by Nikki M Heath

The final years of school mean a lot of decisions about what comes next. The challenge of working out what to do, where and with whom is daunting for everyone. But add in drug-dealing parents due for release from prison, the first blossoming of young love, and a sky glowing orange from the bushfires surrounding your home.

A coming-of-age character study of Year 11 student Ethan, this novel contains layers to occupy the reader’s mind well after the last page. We follow Ethan wrangling with his future and coming to terms with his past, while trying to find a way to reach through to a new kid at school who clearly has trouble at home. Then there’s the girl he likes and his best mate whose dad is away volunteering as a firefighter.

The cover art belies the complexity of themes and the delicacy of Herrick’s touch in dealing with such gritty, confronting subject matter. Aside from a few overwrought descriptions and overt political messaging, readers should also be conscious that domestic violence is a key narrative theme rendered in explicit detail.

Although ostensibly about fractured families, climate change and growing up, more than anything the book follows the maturing of Ethan’s sense of perspective and how he manages to balance the competing forces acting on his life in a way that feels right to him.

This is a thought-provoking, grounding read for mid-teens, which, with the oncoming El NiƱo, could not be more timely.

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