I was but a babe in arms when Cyclone Althea swept across Townsville on the eve of Christmas in 1971 however, I will never forget the noise of it; the warning sirens, the howling winds, the pelting rain. We were hushed into submissive silence by the storm screaming to get through our walls; muted by the all-consuming blackness, the sheer force of it. And then afterwards, struck again with incredulousness; our roof still over our heads whilst every other in the street lay shorn off, twisted and deformed in backyards where they didn’t belong.
Images like these are hard to erase. A few years later, another cyclone, this one by the name of Tracy struck at a similar time of year, blighting a similar town, producing similar indelible memories for the survivors.
Following in the same potent spirit of their Flood and Fire collaborations, Cyclone focuses primarily on a single tragic natural disaster, which had cataclysmic consequences for not only the community it affected but also many others across Australia. The results are profound and moving, yet also hopeful.
A storm brewed out at sea on the 24th of December 1974, yet the residents of Darwin hunkered down, unconcerned, too preoccupied with the imminent arrival of Santa Claus to worry about a fairly normal occurrence for them. When Cyclone Tracy unexpectedly swung and hit Darwin full in the face, she did so with such vehemence and force that the township was taken unawares. As the BOM quoted, ‘The entire fabric of life in Darwin was catastrophically disrupted, with the majority of buildings being totally destroyed or badly damaged, and very few escaping unscathed.’
French depicts this wholesale devastation with lilting verse that pays homage to the intensity of the storm as well as infusing the tragedy with a personal touch. The narrator, presumably a small expectant child waiting for Santa but faced instead with a wild beast who consumes their town overnight, is shown huddling with their family in their brick barbecue amidst a sea of destruction.
The poignancy of the situation and the degree of loss is beautifully rendered by Whatley’s pencil and acrylic wash illustrations. As with its two predecessors, I believe Whatley executed Cyclone’s drawings with his left (non-dominant) hand producing exquisite expressions of infinite detail and fluidity. Streaks, smears and runs feature in every landscape representing the force and chaos of the storm and later the pervading sense of new life, slowly seeping back, where ‘houses grow…day by day’ – my daughter’s favourite spread. The washed-out appearance and toned-down hues do indeed reflect the tone and look of a feature film reel likely to have existed in the 70s. The whole effect is goose bump raising.
Cyclone is an ode of sorts to the man at the end of the phone line French happened to answer one fateful day following the catastrophe of Cyclone Tracy as she manned the Information Section of the Department of Urban and Regional Development. She will never forget his despair, nor his tenacious courage to rebuild and move on.
Like Flood and Fire, and Cyclone Tracy itself, Cyclone is a telling testimony to the legacy of good that can emerge from ravaged lives and homes. It cites that humans are ultimately survivors, capable of adapting and ‘inventing ways to live with whatever challenges the planet throws at them.’ We are reminded to respect the forces of nature and learn from our mistakes; a significant observation for those who have endured a natural disaster and for those of our more recent generations who have not. Highly recommended.
Scholastic Press February 2016