I suspect that if I make another list of favourite authors new to me this year as I did last year, then Steven Herrick's name will appear. I first read Steven Herrick's most recent book Pookie Aleera is not my Boyfriend in January. It was great. I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed it, after all, I've known all my life that poetry is not my thing. I've actively avoided them til now but perhaps verse novels are my thing?
After I read Pookie Aleera recently I checked out Steven Herrick online and discovered that one of his books, The Simple Gift is used as an HSC text here in NSW. The Simple Gift was Steven's third verse novel for young adults and first published back in 2000. It has just been reissued by University of Queensland Press, with a great new cover, it deserved an update, so the time seemed right for me to read it. Sadly my library cover has one of the old, daggy (yet appropriate) covers, but I read it anyway. It was autographed too!
I'm so very glad that I did. The Simple Gift is a bit like Pookie Aleera in that it is again a multiple point of view verse novel. Here we hear from just the three main characters- Billy, Old Bill and Caitlin. But that's about where the similarities end. The Simple Gift is very much a teenage coming of age novel with more mature themes than Pookie.
Billy leaves the only home he's ever known on page 1. He has lived with his abusive, alcoholic father and had enough.
I'm not proud.
I'm sixteen, and soon
to be homeless.
He's a good kid, although perhaps no angel.
Mrs Johnston's mailbox on the ground
after I took to it with a cricket bat
Billy is clever though, a survivor. Subsisting on leftovers at MacDonalds and living in a disused railway carriage. He meets Old Bill, another resident of a disused railway carriage, and they form a bond of necessity in some ways, but it becomes much more than that. A friendship. A nurturing, honest relationship. Billy wonders if Old Bill represents his own future.
I slept badly.
I dreamt of myself
as an old man
in a pub, at the bar,
watching the races on TV
with my smokes and my plans
for winning $5 on the grey horse
running second last.
All of our narrators have a story to tell- Old Bill's is particularly poignant and tragic.
The Simple Gift is a powerful story well told. Steven tells us that he wanted to write a story showing a young person as a positive influence on an adult, instead of the more typical reverse situation. Steven Herrick lived some of Billy's life when he was a young man, making the details deliberate and affecting- Steven travelled on freight trains, slept in disused carriages, and got by with odd jobs- it will be hard to think of tinned tomatoes in the same way again after reading this book!
I'm looking forward to reading even more Steven Herrick soon.