Children's Literacy Round-Up: August 13
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One Shot World Tour: Australia: John Marsden's Tomorrow Series

John Marsden's Tomorrow books are a seven-volume young adult series portraying an alternate reality in which Australia is conquered by an invading army. A group of teenagers, evading capture through a fluke, are left on their own to strike as best they can against their country's invaders, and survive the war. In this article, I'll briefly highlight each book, taking care to minimize spoilers. I'll follow with some general comments about the series as a whole.

Book 1: Tomorrow, When the War Began

Tomorrow, When the War Began is a compelling novel about teenagers who find themselves, overnight, in unimaginable circumstances. Ellie and her six friends return from a multi-day camping trip out in the Australian bush country to find that their town, and their families, have been taken over by an invading foreign army. Joined by one more friend, the eight teenagers focus first on their own survival, and then on striking back at the enemy invaders. They uncover unexpected depths of bravery and leadership within themselves, and the bonds between them grow stronger every day.

It's an appealing premise (at least for fans of dystopian literature such as myself). But what makes this book stand above the ordinary is that the periods of action are balanced by periods of introspection. The teenagers aren't cardboard characters setting off explosives (though there are explosions). But rather, each character has strengths and weaknesses, moments of bravery and moments of giving in to shock and fear. Their reactions are real, not candy-coated spy stuff. They feel remorse when the actions that they are forced into hurt other people, and they question their own motives. The narrator, Ellie, is particularly well drawn, and we see her evolve over the course of the story. Here are some examples:

"That was the first moment at which I started to realise what true courage was. Up until then, everything had been unreal, like a night-stalking game at a school camp. To come out of the darkness now would be to show courage of a type that I'd never had to show before, never even known about." (Chapter 7)

"Although we'd agreed, so logically, to split up if we were chased, I knew now I wasn't going to do that. At that moment only a bullet could have separated me from those two people. Suddenly they'd become my family." (Chapter 7)

The book also does an excellent job of painting life in rural Australia, with references to chooks (chickens) and Landies (land rovers) and the day-to-day details of cattle farming. The camping spot that the teens find is hidden away in a valley called Hell, nearly inaccessible, and their matter-of-fact efforts to organize themselves speak volumes about their rural upbringing. Marsden's writing is filled with tiny details to make it easy to imagine the scenes that he describes. Here's one of my favorites:

"The earth floor on which I stood was covered with twigs and clods of clay from the walls, and litter from possums and birds. The kettle was rusty, the bottom shelf hung askew, and the ceiling was festooned with cobwebs. But even the cobwebs looked old and dead, hanging like Miss Havisham's hair." (Chapter 14)

Book 2: The Dead of Night

The Dead of Night picks up shortly after Tomorrow, When the War Began leaves off, with our intrepid band of teens recuperating from recent adventures in their bush hideout, and then venturing out into enemy territory in a search for allies. They meet up with a group of adults who are taking steps against the enemy, but find that being responsible to adults again is not quite what they expected. They also see, again, the violence of the enemy, and raise the stakes of their own guerrilla actions. As in the first book, they find themselves changing in response to their situation.

Book 2 does address one question that I had while reading Book 1. In the first book, Ellie is using a recovery lull to write about the group's adventures to date, at the request of the others. She knows that the other are going to read what she's written, but she's very open about the interpersonal dynamics of the group, including her own conflict about being interested in two of the boys. She acknowledges, while writing up the events of Book 2, that her write-up to date has caused some tension in the group, noting "Oh, the power of the written word." Despite this conflict, Ellie is unflinching in her depiction of ongoing emotions. I found this description of fear especially authentic:

"I was breathing hard, as though I'd run a crossie (cross-country race), and I was sweating all over. The sweat felt so cold on my skin, like it was turning to ice. My throat had a lump so big I felt I'd swallowed a chicken bone. Basically, I felt sick. I was very scared. I'd almost forgotten the emotion that had brought us here: my love for Corrie and Kevin." (Chapter 2)

I thought that the following description of how the teens had been transformed by the invasion of the country summed up much of the feel of the series:

"We were just ordinary teenagers, so ordinary we were boring. Overnight they'd pulled the roof off our lives. And after they'd pulled off the roof they'd come in and torn down the curtains, ripped up the furniture, burnt the house and thrown us into the night, where we'd been forced to run and hide and live like wild animals. We had no foundations, and we had no secure walls around our life any more. We were living in a strange long nightmare, where we had to make our own rules, invent new values, stumble around blindly, hoping we weren't making too many mistakes. We clung to what we knew and what we thought was right, but all the time those things were being stripped from us. I didn't know if we'd be left with nothing, or if we'd be left with a new set of rules and attitudes and behaviours, so that we weren't able to recognize ourselves any more. We could end up as new, distorted, deformed creatures, with only a few physical resemblances to the people we once were." (Chapter 10)

Book 3: A Killing Frost

In A Killing Frost, Ellie and her friends take even more extreme actions against the invading enemy, attacking the harbor that the enemy is using for transport. Even as she becomes ever more ruthless, Ellie continues to question the changes in herself, and wonder where her limits lie. The friends remain close, and the reader gets to know them increasingly well. My favorite lines from this installment reveal Ellie's love of books:

"We looked in the house for books, but only found two, apart from technical manuals. I thought it was amazing, a house with just two books. (Chapter 21)

I believe that Book 3 was originally the end of the series, and there is some resolution at the end of the book. However, fortunately for us, Marsden decided to continue, adding four other titles to the series.

Book 4: Darkness Be My Friend

I had intended to stop with Book 3, because I have so many other neglected books. But I gave Darkness Be My Friend a quick look, and was soon too drawn in to stop. In Book 4, Ellie and her friends (the ones still alive) agree, reluctantly and with trepidation, to return to their town of Wirrawee to help guide some soldiers from New Zealand. The soldiers plan to sabotage the enemy's new airfield. Things don't go quite as expected. The soldiers disappear, leaving the teens once again on their own. They sneak into Wirrawee themselves, and attempt to do some damage, and in the process pick up some news about their captured friends and family members.

In Book 4, Ellie is a bit more bitter than in the earlier books, reflecting the ever-increasing trauma of the war, and her grief over her lost friends. She says early in the book:

"We'd escaped from a nightmare, or we thought we had. The truth is, there's no escape from some nightmares. This one followed us across the Tasman. They'd air-lifted us out of our own country after it was invaded. We'd arrived in New Zealand burnt and injured and shocked, with broken bones, and scars inside and out. We'd lost contact with our families, we'd seen friends die, and we'd caused other people to die by our own deliberate actions.

"We were just typical survivors of war, I guess."

Ellie and the others are also braver in Book 4. This is where they really stop thinking that other people are going to save them, and truly take responsibility for themselves.

Book 5: Burning for Revenge

Burning for Revenge finds Ellie and her friends let down by the New Zealanders, and preparing to take dramatic action against the invaders. They have successes, but also come face to face the depth of the damage that the war has done to their country. They encounter a group of feral children, scraping by in an abandoned suburb, and worry about how these children will ever become functioning adults. Ellie also faces a betrayal by one of the others in her group, which is damaging in a different way.

Book 6: The Night is for Hunting

The Night is for Hunting is a bit of a break from the relentless activities of the previous books. Oh, there are still chases and battles, but in between there's a bit of a lull, spent in the safety of Hell. The wild children from the previous book (referred to as "the ferals") play a major part in this installment, and despite their ferocity, they ultimately help to re-humanize Ellie and her friends. Like some of the other books, this book includes big picture thoughts by Ellie, such as this passage:

"When it's all said and done, the only things that matter in life are so damn simple. Family, friends, being safe and well. I think before the war a lot of people got sucked in by all the crap on TV. They thought having the right shoes or the right jeans or the right car really mattered. Boy were we ever dumb.

"Maybe people thought they could hide behind that stuff. Maybe they thought that if they wore Levis, ate Maccas and drank Pepsi no-one would look any further. No-one would see the real person.

"War's stripped all that from us... It seems like suffering's the only time we can see what's essential. If peace ever comes back I'm making a vow: I'll design myself special glasses. They'll block out whether people are fat or thin or beautiful or weird-looking, whether they have pimples or birthmarks or different coloured skin. They'll do everything suffering's done for us, but without the pain. I'm going to wear those glasses for the rest of my life."

Perhaps that sounds a bit over-the-top out of context. But trust me, after reading about everything that Ellie and her friends go through, passages like the above bring tears to the reader's eye.

Book 7: The Other Side of Dawn

The Other Side of Dawn concludes the Tomorrow series (though there is another, shorter series that follows called The Ellie Chronicles). This installment brings a new level of tension, and the constant risk of capture, as the teens help with the push towards the end of the war. Ellie suffers tremendously in this book, both physically and emotionally, though we know that she'll survive (she's the narrator - she has to survive to have written down the story). The atrocities of the invading army are more detailed in this book, but Marsden makes sure to lighten things with the occasional humorous or tender moment.

For example, there's this throwaway line: "We waited silently. Would have been silly to wait any other way." (Chapter 5), a classic understatement as the teens stay out of the way of soldiers on patrol.

I read the last third of the book completely oblivious to my surroundings, emotionally engaged in Ellie's struggles, and needing to know the conclusion to the series. I'll say no more about it, in my wish not to spoil things for you, but that the ending is satisfying.

General Thoughts on the Tomorrow Series:

Most of the editions that I read included a handy guide to Aussie terminology at the front of the book, which I found very helpful. By the end of the seven books, I was fairly well up on my Australian lingo, and I may start using phrases like fair dinkum (the truth, the real thing), dag (an annoying person), and stuffed (exhausted).

The series also includes various homages to the Australian countryside, like this one, from Book 2:

"To a lot of people, I suppose it wouldn't have been beautiful. It had been a dry summer, and although the river flats were a soft green, the paddocks beyond Risdon had burnt off into the ochre sameness that seemed part of my life, part of me. The lush green of our springs and early summers never lasted long. I was more used to that dry monotonous yellow; so used to it that at some stage it had soaked into me, till I wasn't sure if there were boundaries between me and the landscape anymore. I remember Mr. Kassar at school saying that he'd come home after living a year in England and his heart ached with love when he saw the sunburnt plains again. I knew what he meant; boy did I know what he meant." (Chapter 7)

Or this one, from Book 4:

"You can never stay angry for too long in the bush though. At least, that's what I think. It's not that it's soothing or restful, because it's not. What it does for me is get inside my body, inside my blood, and take me over. I don't know that I can describe it any better than that. It takes me over and I become part of it and it becomes part of me and I'm not very important, or at least no more important than a tree or a rock or a spider abseiling down a long long thread of cobwebs." (Chapter 4)

Or this one, from Book 6:

"...but I still couldn't resist the power of the place. At one stage we were riding through a eucalypt forest, trees quite widely spaced, no undergrowth. It was so easy, so relaxing. Tall white trunks, fawn bark peeling off them, little brown birds darting from on e to the next. There were no bright colours to hurt the eye. Quiet, fresh, self-contained. It wasn't paradise -- far from it -- but it would do me." (Chapter 10)

Aside from the fully realized setting, what makes this series stand out is the combination of fast-paced action and teenage introspection. The characters grow and evolve throughout the series. They commit acts of violence, and are changed irrevocably by their actions. They feel real. They argue with one another, and make mistakes. They experience a full range of emotions, from fear and exhaustion to love. Marsden doesn't shrink from portraying real human needs, physical and emotional. There's a scene in which the kids have to hide, silently, all day, with the enemy very nearby. When they are finally released from their hiding place, the first thing that they do is go to the bathroom. I liked the honesty of that.

The Tomorrow books are also a commentary on the horrors of war, and what war does to both soldiers and civilians. Because of the way we receive this message, through Ellie's eyes, Ellie who feels completely real to us, it doesn't feel in any way like a "message book." It feels like something that happened to a friend. We're horrified by everything that she's had to go through, and determined that it should never happen again. At least, that's how I felt.

I highly recommend this series for teen (14 and up) and adult readers. It's a series of exciting adventures, but it's also much more.

Further Reading:

John Marsden's website
The John Marsden Prize for Young Australian Writers
While I Live (the first book in The Ellie Chronicles)