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While I Live

by John Marsden

A review by David Carroll, 2004

While I Live, by John Marsden, Australian hardbackPublished by Pan Macmillan. ISBN 1-4050-3554-4

The Tomorrow series by John Marsden has caused quite a stir, consistently being listed among the most popular Australian books of our time. And now the saga continues -- sort of. Actually, we're told While I Live is the start of a new series, called The Ellie Chronicles. After all, the war is over, Australia has been divided into us and them, and the community of Wirrawee is trying to make the best of a perilous peace, with the new border only a few kilometres away. But Ellie Linton is back, in as much trouble as usual.

You can definitely count me as a fan of the original series, which maintains a consistent level of excitement, insight and tragedy through seven volumes, with a fair amount of variety to boot. (I am tempted to qualify that statement, since I found one of the books somewhat disappointing in comparison to the rest. But concentrating on that diminishes the achievement of the whole, which is remarkable.) The fact that it all takes place in the familiar landscapes of outback Australia only adds to the appeal -- plus the fact John Marsden has a great knack for titles. Even so, I was a bit leery when I heard of the continuation. Would this turn out to be an author who is working his most popular character into the ground, just to keep words on the page? He's already finished the series off once (my copy of book three, The Third Day, The Frost, proclaims itself the breathtaking finale) -- is there yet more to be said?

Things got off to a strange start with a seemingly lacklustre publicity campaign, given the recognition you would expect for such a title. They did release a sample chapter to pick up in bookshops (you can also read it online), which is a good idea -- their sample of Tomorrow When the War Began is what got me into the series to begin with. But copies of the book itself seemed few and far between, and mostly hidden on shelves instead of on display. I'm not sure what that was all about (certainly The Other Side of Dawn was more impressively presented, from what I remember, and there's no lack of modern examples). But such considerations as author intent and publisher support slide into the background when we consider the book itself. It all comes down to: is it any good?

There's certainly no lack of tragedy this time round, despite the end of official hostilities. An early disaster sees Ellie left to look after both her family farm and Gavin, the half-feral boy she picked up in The Night is for Hunting. It's a big job, but there's also education, her confused feelings for Lee and Homer, the tricky legal problem that she is not yet an adult in the eyes of the law, and the continuing fallout from the war. Armed men are still crossing the border, neither side is particularly happy with the final settlement, and a mysterious group in town has their own agenda -- one that could make good use of Ellie's experience as a guerrilla fighter.

This is all told in the familiar and distinctive voice of the previous books -- pragmatic, passionate and stubborn as the land. Marsden expertly weaves between all these disparate problems, providing moments of superb tension and clever plotting in the form of various crises (from a cow caught in mud, to armed invaders and legal shenanigans). Between these highpoints, the morass of little difficulties and anecdotes of country life keeps everything ticking over. I did think the sheer amount of stuff our heroine was tackling day-to-day was starting to push credibility (in her position I'd seriously consider just skipping a year of school -- though, needless to say, in her position I'd be left with a lot of dead cattle very quickly). Still, that's not a major problem. As a personal memoir of heartbreak and excitement, the book is up there with the best of the series.

When the book gets beyond the personal, however, a few more problems start to show themselves. In short, I found myself questioning this depiction of post-war Australia from a number of different directions. One is the fact that Marsden continues to avoid mentioning the nationality of the invaders. The decision to obscure that fact initially was a good one, adding to the confusion whilst avoiding any intolerance spilling over into the real world. And anyway, I think we all know who the invaders actually are (While I Live reinforces the obvious choice with its border crossings, which bring to mind some recent history) and that's not really the point of the series. But continuing efforts to conceal that little factoid are getting a bit silly.

(It's also gotta be a problem for anyone attempting to film this particular property -- a mini-series seems to have been long mooted, and I'd certainly watch it, for one.)

A more substantial problem is the very depiction of Wirrawee, and by extension post-war Australia. Quite frankly, it didn't strike me as very credible that so many institutions are back up and running, and that business is more or less back to normal, albeit with smaller plots and higher cattle prices. What we see of the economy and civic organisation seems very familiar. We even get references to modern bands such as the Vines, who have apparently thrown off the stigma of invasion to get their songs distributed (OK, that's harsh, and since the war happens 'tomorrow', a bit of pop culture doesn't go astray). The disparity between situation normal and the presence of the nearby border is highlighted in the last two crises Ellie faces -- I shouldn't give anything away about them, and the scenes individually are great, but the contrast is a little jarring.

More than that, I'm interested as a matter of course in how the post-war situation is working out, and we get few clues (though the detail about the politics we get is interesting). Is this border horizontal or vertical (ie, have the invaders claimed the northern coasts or the western plains)? What about cities? Australia is a continent of sharp contrasts in population and land use, and it seems to me two distinct halves would have great trouble maintaining themselves separately -- it seems tricky enough for the country as a whole!

While we probably don't need such extremes of speculative socio-economics, some indication of the wider chaos would not go astray. It seems, for example, that all those from Wirrawee who survived the war have returned to make another go of their town. That may be a powerful metaphor of the resilience of country life -- but it'd seem more likely that most would get away from the border and try their luck elsewhere. We don't really discover whether anyone even considers such matters (even Lee, who has gone to live in the city, is doing so as an obligation, not by choice). Are there refugees from now-occupied cities? Military outposts nearby? The military does have a roll to play -- even the police, to an extent -- but it's all rather vague.

And since I'm being picky (it's an occupational hazard), there's one other thing to mention. Isn't Ellie an actual celebrity? In Darkness Be My Friend she does what amounts to a tour of New Zealand, talking about her war experiences and (I seem to remember) her memoirs of them. Why aren't those memoirs out and about now, making her some desperately needed cash, and can't her connections pull a little more weight on her behalf? [1]

As with most of my other criticisms, there is an answer to that: it'd change the nature of the book into something less interesting. While I Live offers a sharply realistic view of war and its ending, demystifying and celebrating some of the nastier -- earthier -- sides of the attempt to live in peace. In particular, John Marsden is obviously in love with his heroine's resourcefulness, common sense and capacity for both violence and tolerance, and through her to the character of rural Australia itself. That carries the story, and if the borders are a little blurred, there is more than enough to hold your attention in the heart of it.


1: Actually, the following book Incurable answers that question, I'm happy to say.
 

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