YA Review – Steal My Sunshine

The reading audience of YA yarns is ticklish to quantify by age and intangible by definition. Yet its common trait is the desire to be shocked, entertained and moved in the briefest possible time. I no longer have the rush of youth but do suffer the impatience of age so I love that YA reads can take me on a tour of emotions and conflicts, show me succinct snap shots of life, and have me safely home in time for dinner. It’s a bit like being a teenager again. So many issues, duelling emotions, and desperate questions that need answering – like yesterday.

Steal my sunshineSteal My Sunshine, Emily Gale’s first Australian release, is a bit of a circular re-visitation of one’s past. It centres around 15 year old Hannah, a girl with mostly pure intentions who is often at bitter odds with her mother Sarah, and older brother, Sam. She dwells on the fringe of true friendship and romance and feels most kindred to Essie, her eccentric, gin-swilling grandmother.

This story drew me in from the start. How could someone’s sunshine be stolen? It is easy to find fault with Hannah’s acerbic, confused mother, her pusillanimous father, her self-absorbed brother, and her seen-it-all-before best friend. But the key to surviving a crisis is not always about attributing blame. Sometimes it just makes more sense to acknowledge your true-self and accept how it fits in with life.

Hannah’s acknowledgment occurs when her world begins to dissolve during an oppressive Melbourne heatwave. Normality is slipping through her fingers faster than sand from St Kilda beach and she’s at a loss as to how to hang onto it. Enter Essie; the one person Hannah feels holds the answers, whose past can help Hannah make sense of her future. But Essie harbours a shameful secret of her own.

Hannah’s wild, enigmatic misfit of a best friend, Chloe, complicates the mix further. She is as intimate as a bestie should be but is not quite the right fit for the more straight-shooting Hannah. It doesn’t help that Hannah has a burning desire for Evan, Chloe’s older brother.

The disintegration of Hannah’s parents’ marriage and subsequent polarisation between Sam, her mother and herself, forces Hannah to spend more and more time with her grandmother until Essie at last, reveals the shocking truth. And this is where it gets interesting.

Essie takes us back sixty years after an ill-fated attraction leads to her expulsion from her family in the UK to Australia and the subsequent ‘cruel, immoral and shameful’ forced adoption of her baby. It is this theme of abandonment, involuntary confinement, and coercion that Gale portrays so poignantly through Essie’s heart-wrenching, personal recounts.

Though astounded, Hannah eventually finds solace and an understanding of where she belongs within her family and in doing so, reconciles with those she has been at odds with.

Touted as a coming of age novel, Steal My Sunshine summons us to acknowledge the abominable practise of forced adoption in the 1950’s and 1960’s and the realisation that not all broken things can be fixed back to perfect. But as Hannah discovers, the pieces can be saved and remodelled into something else just as special.

Emily GaleGale successfully evokes all the discomfiture of living in St Kilda during a heatwave whilst confronting one’s burning personal issues. Her narrative is gripping yet fluid, and although I would have liked to have seen more emotional development between Hanna and Evan (because I’m a hopeless romantic), it would have been superfluous to the story. The ending seemed a little too convenient after the gritty intrigue created mid-novel but these are minor niggles in a book that offered a satisfying YA mix of confronting pasts, contemporary anguish and reclaiming one’s self. A YA read that shines.

Woolshed Press imprint of Random House Australia May 2013



Ten Hail Marys

Ten Hail MarysWhat surprises me most about harrowing memoirs is the matter-of-fact aplomb with which they’re so often conveyed. Kay Howarth’s Ten Hail Marys is no exception, with the Australian first-time author pragmatically detailing her experiences growing up both as an Indigenous Australian and as a pregnant teenager in St Margaret’s home for unwed mothers where she was ‘pressured’ (somehow that word doesn’t do justice to what she went through) to give up her child.

As the illegitimate daughter of a wayward mother and with her father unknown or whose identity was never quite made clear, raised by her fickle grandmother, deposited at or dumped on various relatives and neighbours, or simply kicked out of home, what’s surprising is that Howarth survived her childhood relatively unscathed.

Despite her grandmother’s put down that she would end up ‘hawking her fork’ on the street just like her mother, Howarth was actually an incredibly bright and very good kid. But against a backdrop of threatened or actual physical, sexual, and emotional violence, and without anyone to turn to for information or help, the sexually naïve Howarth found herself pregnant at age 15.

Which is where the inspiration for the story sets in.

A recent parliamentary inquiry into adoption practices between 1950 and 1998 home implied that unwed mothers-to-be were treated well and had the option to keep their children. This was anything but the truth, with the some 98,578 unwed women who gave birth to babies during this time given few options and put under extreme duress to give up their children to couples who would, it was implied, be able to take better care of them.

Until this book, Howarth hadn’t openly discussed her experiences at St Margaret’s—she figured that no one would believe her. She certainly hadn’t been aware of her options at the time of her pregnancy and was put under extraordinary pressure by the nuns to relinquish her rights to her child. Where her story differs is that she was one of the few women who managed to keep her baby, albeit through having to survive traumatic circumstances.

It’s been said that the invention and ready availability of the contraceptive pill is one of the greatest advances of recent times and, after reading Howarth’s tale, it’s something I’m inclined to agree with. The stigma surrounding, and lack of options offered to, women who found themselves pregnant out of wedlock are disturbing. Indeed, part insight into the treatment of Indigenous Australians, part insight into the treatment of unmarried mothers, what makes Ten Hail Marys all the more shocking is that it happened not hundreds of years ago, but in recent, living memory.

But I don’t wish to give the wrong impression. For the apparently dark themes it addresses, the book is surprisingly light and easy to read and Howarth’s intelligence, strength of character, sense of humour, and love for her child are what are most striking. There’s no pity in this memoir. Instead it sets the record straight on, and offers an inspiring insight into, a significant and little-known aspect of Australian history.