Ash Road is a fabulous read. However, I let myself be a bit put off by the daggy old cover of my edition and I initially wasn't sure that I was going to like it, but it's such a great story- both a compelling adventure with action waiting to boil over, and a clever and nuanced character study. I did like the rather 1970 recommendation at the start. "For readers over 10, especially boys."
Ash Road is the story of a few short hours in a baking hot summer. Three 15 year old boys convince their parents to let them go camping alone for the first time.
They had escaped from the city for a glorious week of freedom in the bush. They had never done it before. They had planned it for months. At first their parents had said no, firmly no, but the boys had nagged and nagged.
Things go awry very quickly. On their very first night one of the boys has inadvertently started a fire, while making coffee- I knew it was an evil substance. The first chapter, The North Wind, deals with the boys starting their trip and the start of the fire. The action then moves to Ash Road in Chapter 2, a rural community some distance away, but which will come under threat from the flames. We then don't see the three boys again for some time, but meet the residents of this rural road.
At first there were quite a few characters to get sorted, and it took me a while to get them all straight. I loved how Grandpa Tanner was introduced:
It was early for Grandpa Tanner to be out of bed. There had been a time when he had been up around dawn almost every day, but there was no need for that now. His family had long since grown up and gone away; his wife Marjorie had been dead for so many years; the relentless bush had reclaimed his once splendid farm; dogwood scrub and blackberries had choked his fruit trees; sorrel and couch grass had overrun his garden; there was no cow to milk or hens to feed.
Grandpa Tanner's actions late in the book moved me to tears, and will stay with me for a long time.
Ivan Southall does an incredible job of building the atmosphere and tension of that fateful morning. His descriptions of the progress of the coming fire are wonderful.
And he was frightened of the sky. It was so threatening, so ugly, so unlike anything he had ever seen. It was a hot brown mantle over the earth with pieces breaking off it, little black pieces of ash; an oppressive mantle that did not prevent the penetration of the sun's heat but imprisoned it, added to it, and magnified the hostility of the day.
Every Australian has their own experiences with and memories of bushfire. Thankfully my experiences have been more from the tv news, and much less close than those of the residents of Ash Road. Although we've all smelt smoke from bushfires, and I remember ash raining down in my inner city backyard in Sydney when fires ringed the city. There have been many terrible fires in recent years that we seem to have a collective consciousness regarding fire, so much so, that early on when some of the residents of Ash Road doubt that they could ever be threatened by fire, it seems a bit incredulous to a modern reader. Also, by a variety of circumstance the children of Ash Road are left essentially on their own to deal with the oncoming inferno. It's not quite a scenario that I think would play out now, but it makes for compelling reading.
It's a shame that Ivan Southall has become somewhat of a forgotten Australian writer. He had a rather successful career winning the Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year four times between 1966 and 1976. And he still remains the only Australian author to win the Carnegie Medal (for Josh way back in 1971)! Surely we're overdue for the next Carnegie winner? Text Publishing have included three Southall titles in the their Text Classics series- Ash Road, Hills End and To The Wild Sky so these amazing stories are available to a whole new generation of readers. I certainly hope many modern readers find their way to this very Australian story.