Protectors of Secret Natural Places: Tony Birch and Inga Simpson

TreesI was very fortunate to chair a session with Inga Simpson and Tony Birch at the Sydney Writers Festival.

They both have had books long or short listed for the prestigious Miles Franklin award. Tony’s Ghost River is currently longlisted.

It was also shortlisted for two categories in this year’s NSW Premier’s Awards: the Christina Stead prize for fiction and the newly created Indigenous Prize.

Tony and Inga both know their way around universities, as well as being accomplished fiction writers who take us on secret, sensory journeys with their young characters, particularly into natural ‘inbetween’ places, around rivers and trees.

I was first aware of Inga’s writing when her debut novel, Mr Wigg was shortlisted for the Indies awards. I remember the ripples that her lyrical writing about an elderly man in his orchard caused in the literary community.

The writing in her second novel Nest is also the equivalent of fine slow-cooking with its depiction of Jen’s life in a sub-tropical forest but it is utterly captivating and suspenseful at the same time. Nest

Her new novel Where the Trees Were also has evocative descriptions of place – the river and trees.

A group of boys and one girl, Jay, spend their summer holidays before starting high school in the bush, mainly around the river. They find a circle of trees that seem to be out of time and world. Designs are carved into their trunks. Are they a story or code?

The parts of the story about Jay as a girl are told in first person. We also meet her as an adult in Canberra, told in third person.

The indolence of quite an idyllic childhood, although charged with the urgency of adolescence, changes to a harder-edged anticipation and anxiety when a conservationist, (we’re not immediately told her name is Jayne) is involved in stealing a carved Indigenous artifact, an arborglyph, a Wiradjuri burial tree.

Tony Birch’s writing is assured, direct and unpretentious.

I was very moved by his novel Blood, particularly the strength of character and loving heart of his young part- Aboriginal protagonist, Jesse.

His most recent novel is Ghost River, set in the 1960s where the intersected lives of two adolescent boys and the dispossessed river men play out alongside the Yarra River. Ghost River

Storytelling and the changes and roils of life are intrinsic to this novel, reflected in Tony’s own virtuosic story-telling style which moves from energy and adventure to trouble, pathos and weariness and back again like the river itself.

I wonder how much of his own boyhood Tony has drawn upon to create his lively characters Ren, and particularly Sonny.

Mr Wigg

Review – Rockhopping by Trace Balla

Attributed as ‘a class act’ by The Australian.

Praised by leading industry professionals.

Acclaimed with prestigious awards.

imageHer previous title in the series, Rivertime (review), is the winner of several book prizes, including the Readings Children’s Book Prize, the Wilderness Society’s Environment Award, and shortlisted in the CBCA Awards, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and Speech Pathology Australia Awards. Author illustrator Trace Balla has moved us once more with her new graphic, enchanting mountain adventure novel in Rockhopping.

With its sheer gravitational pull, Rockhopping takes its readers to gripping heights (and depths as it turns out!). You’ll discover moments of both unexpected intensity and serendipitous tranquility. Any primary school kid, or adult, excited by the possibilities of a hike through nature (particularly of the more challenging kind), and also those open to fortuitous opportunities won’t be disappointed by this symbolic quest.

imageClancy and his happy-go-lucky Uncle Egg spontaneously plan another camping trip following the success of their last one canoeing on the Glenelg River. Their aim is to find the source of the river. But Uncle Egg knows it won’t be easy so he ensures Clancy is trained and prepared weeks ahead of their journey. Backpacks full of supplies in tow, the pair begin their climb at the side of the Gariwerd (the Grampians) mountain range. Their time trekking around the rocks comes with not only physical, but emotional, strains. Using all their resources they find strength, willpower, companionship and loyalty to face and overcome the setbacks (including a rigorous endurance test by Uncle Egg to rescue Clancy, and his backpack, from a fall into a ravine). But at the same time they lap up the chances to appreciate each other and the wonder and beauty of the creatures and sights around them.

imageTrace Balla‘s text and illustrations are so child-friendly with their progressive narrative, enthralling dialogue and lively sequenced images that it makes us want to have a nature adventure of our own just to be able to document it in the same way! Her research and insights into the Victorian Range region, the Indigenous people and their history, ecologists and her own up close and personal encounters with leeches, swamps and cliffs are brilliantly intertwined into this book. Just like Clancy and Uncle Egg, Balla’s inspiration stemmed out of unforeseen travels and discoveries. Her message is so affecting:

image“When you stop trying to get anywhere and just be, a whole world of wonder can open up to you… The more you look the more you find out. It’s also about realising we are part of the natural world, rather than separate to it… It is a book that reminds us about being in touch with the earth.”

Rockhopping is an enriching, magical delight with endless scope for environmental, social and historical study as well as inciting self-discovery and philosophical reflections. Certainly an adventure you won’t want to miss!

Purchase Rockhopping by Trace Balla, published by Allen&Unwin, 2016.

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