Monday, January 11, 2016

Walking in someone else’s shoes

John Marsden can certainly set a scene that makes you think – “What would I do if this happened to me?”

With so much in the news about Syrian refugees, Home and Away by John Marsden is a book that’s timely to post about.  His book really brings home the ‘me’ part of my question.  What would I do if this was happening to me and my family?

This is not an easy book with a happy ending. 

We are introduced to a typical Australian family (though there’s little that identifies them as specifically Australian) Mom, Dad, Claire, Toby, Grandma (who lives next door) and an unnamed narrator.

Initially, our narrator documents briefly a few defining things about each family member so we can get a sense of who they are, their hopes and dreams and includes a family picture. We get a glimpse of a typical day of everyone busy with their work or school day.

And then the war starts.

Within a couple of months food becomes desperately difficult to find.  A few weeks later, Toby becomes sick, Claire doesn’t speak and Mom and Grandma are shadows of themselves.  They are reduced to eating roadkill and scavenging in abandoned gardens.
By the fifth month, Dad has made arrangements, at great expense, to get the family out and to a country where they’ll be safe with plenty of food and medical care. Escaping their war torn home means taking a leaky boat filled with strangers to a distant place called Hollania.  They spend 11 days seemingly adrift with few resources where even a few scraps of fish can cost a life. When they see another boat they think they will be rescued but that is not the case.  The naval vessel is there to drive them away but because the boat is in such bad shape they are allowed to land and are taken to an isolated camp in the middle of a desert. The government doesn’t want to encourage more illegal immigrants from coming so provides minimal care. Others say that these people aren’t really desperate refugees and are there to make money.  And then there are those who do provide the detainees with some help and kindness. People die including some of the family members we’ve gotten to know at every stage of this drama.

Sound familiar?

None of this is new.  We’re reading about people like this in the news right now. What is different is the family is from a country like our own.  The author and illustrator have made this narrative where we can easily place ourselves. The illustrations are often dark and bleak.  Some of them are drawn in crayon as if by five-year old Toby and show us what he sees if not how he’s making sense of it all; lots of planes flying overhead, explosions and dead bodies.

The diary entries are brief and intermittent bringing us up-to-date about what’s happening in a very matter-of-fact way.  Being so matter-of-fact made reading the story bearable. I was adding my own layers of emotion and understanding as I read through the book.  I kept going back over the timeline to see how quickly normal life breaks down when all our conveniences are taken away. Life quickly becomes very basic – food, water, safety.  Also, this story shows just how tenuous life really is and how much we take for granted. I’m having a difficult time imagining losing a father in the manner described in this story. The mental toll that this situation takes on everyone: Toby’s conviction that he’s done something bad (killed everyone) and that’s the reason he’s living in prison and Claire’s confinement in a psychiatric ward keeps coming back to me. 

So, the question is what would you do if this happened to you?

I’m recommending this as a terrific, powerful and difficult classroom resource for grades 5 or 6 and up.


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