Coming-of-age By the River

h1 September 20th, 2006 by jules

Steven Herrick’s By the River, published in 2004, is a beautifully-told novel in free verse. A lovely, lovely book this one is. And I have been wanting to read it since it was first published, but no local libraries had it. Herrick is an Australian literary sensation of sorts, as I understand it, and this book itself garnered many honors in Herrick’s home, including a Children’s Book of the Year Honor Book for Older Readers by the Children’s Book Council of Australia. All of that’s to say that the book is an Australian wonder, but it seems to have stayed there in all its glory a while, mate. But now I have Front Street Books to thank for its Spring 2006 publication here in the States, complete with a new jacket and book design. Finally, I have it in my hands. (And, to give credit where credit is due, I have the honorable Judith Ridge, also a member of the Child_Lit listserv, to thank for recommending the book. She doesn’t know me, but she raved about it on Child_Lit and piqued my curiosity. Besides, she has an informative blog, especially for those who want to keep abreast of children’s lit in a country other than this one).

The book’s protagonist is Harry Hodby, coming of age in a small Australian town by a river. It is the early 1960s, and Harry — named for Harry Houdini (“You can get out of anything/with that mouth of yours,” his teacher tells him) — is 14 years old. Harry lives with his father, a working class man employed by a foundry, and his brother, Keith, just one year younger. Their mother died when Harry was seven, and Linda Mahony — Harry’s class mate and friend, who tried valiantly with her irrepressible joy for life and imaginative storytelling to keep Harry’s small-town ennui at bay — was swept away in a flood.

Though this one’s not heavy on plot but, instead, compelling in mood, I still don’t want to give anything more away for those who may want to read it. The novel can be best summarized by saying that, throughout the book’s pages, Harry documents — with great detail — the life around him in his small home town as he struggles through his own quiet heartbreak over the death of his mother and friend. An emotionally precocious and perceptive boy, he muses insightfully on the existence of God, friendship, bullies, sex, loneliness, love (his infatuation with Miss Spencer, the school secretary), death, and — through it all — survives the fact that he and his family are often the brunt of some petty gossip that occurs in town (though his modest, smart, and sensitive father serves as a fine role model for pubescent Harry and his brother). And, most earnestly, Harry wants to get out of the town, to escape like his namesake — and to do so alive: “As the branches/scrape their fingers/down my window/and the clock ticks slowly/in the hallway/I lie awake/thinking how/people leave this town/in an ambulance/or worse . . .”

Harry quite frequently visits Pearce Swamp, where Linda’s body eventually emerged and where a white cross — a shrine of sorts — is placed by her family. He soon comes to understand, though, that he’s not the only visitor, and much of the latter half of the novel is about his quest to uncover who else in his remote town shares the heartache that he feels over Linda’s death.

Herrick’s poetry in this novel is graceful and eloquent. He’s one of those rare poets who can make writing free verse look easy; on the surface it seems simple but pervading his words are much well-crafted symbolism, vivid imagery, and potent themes. I know free verse gets used and abused a lot these days, but when it’s well-done, it’s one of my favorite things (right behind the coffee bean and liquor-filled chocolates). Two of the best contemporary novels in the field of children’s literature, in my humble opinion, are free verse novels: Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust and Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade. Herrick’s writing — like Hesse’s and Wolff’s — is luminous and complete, bringing to life a time and place that totally transports the reader. And, like with Hesse and Wolff, a lot of these poems (chapters, if you will) could stand alone as solitary poems. Take the following, an excerpt from one of the poems/chapters entitled “Listening.” Johnny Barlow, another classmate of Harry’s (one of my favorite characters; in Johnny, the school bully, we see that no one is merely what they seem on the surface), tells Harry that if you listen hard enough late at night, you can hear Linda (“Linda whispers solace/in the bitterness of the Barlow house”). Harry’s internal response is to think of his father’s grief over the death of Harry’s mother:

My dad listens
all night
in his old lounge chair
with a cup of tea.
He stares into space
and remembers her voice,
and the smell of her hair,
and her long hands
pressing the folds of her dress.
And if you’d ask him
to move on,
he’d look at you
with those clear beautiful eyes
and he’d smile
and touch your arm
and say, “To where?”
Then he’d go back
to his chair
and listen
to Keith snoring
in the next room,
or he’d check on me
quiet in bed.
He’d close our door,
return to his chair,
and listen
all night
to the miraculous sound
of her presence.

Did I mention this is a lovely book? And, in the end, we’re left with a big ‘ol shimmering ray of hope in the form of Harry’s new friend, evoking the spirit of Linda, and Harry’s confidence that he’ll, indeed, find his way out one day: “And I know/my dad/has given me the directions out/in his strong, calm voice/I remember them/word for word/I wait for that day/I hear my father’s voice” . . .

One comment to “Coming-of-age By the River

  1. wow. and here i thought i’d given up on free-verse novels, after “dark sons” by nikki grimes. but you’ve sold me. i’ll put this on my to-read list.

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