August 2018: Delights and Hardships
Delights In the Last Month:
1. Taking grandkids – and other kids – to Josephine Wants to Dance: The Musical. The youngest sat without moving, with delight and amazement, for the entire performance, and was still dazed by its wonderfulness an hour later. The others were laughing, dancing, remembering…
We are taking another small horde to see it again in Canberra later this month, and then… who knows? it is magic, true magic, and I could see it an infinite number of times.
2. Baby wombats! We have two just now, one the size and shape of a fattish football, scampering away on short legs. Today he let me come close to him, about a metre away, before running off. Mummy McBristles began to growl at that stage, so retreated.
The other is still in the pouch; just a pink nose showing, or sometimes a pink nose and two small feet, and an even tinier mouth eats grass while hanging from the pouch. If I were her I’d stay in there till the weather warms up a bit.
3. Two minutes rain. I thought it was a helicopter at first, it’s so long since I’ve heard rain on the roof.
Draft #1 has been completed, and possibly draft #2 by the time you read this. It is the last in the Shakespeare series, but very different from the others. It’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with free will and pizza. Both are important.
I never did like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It made me uneasy. I only recently realised why. Only royalty has free will: the peasant boy has no name, no one wonders how Bottom feels after the enchanted night, Hermia must die or become a nun, Demetrius doesn’t think twice about demanding a bride who doesn’t want him. It is a play about those in power abusing it, and using it for the most trivial ends.
Which may be what Shakespeare intended. He wrote under two absolute rulers: Queen Elizabeth I, who was wise and brilliant as well as capricious, and James I and VI, who was only sometimes wise and mostly mad. Criticising either of them was a way to end up with your head on a pike.
Was Midsummer’s the only way Shakespeare could criticise the capriciousness of rulers, a world where a glover’s son like him was supposed to become a glover, not a playwright or a gentleman? He was made to suffer when he at last succeeded in going his own way. Did Shakespeare choose to marry Anne Hathaway? In Elizabethan times your religion was prescribed by the crown, as were the colour and fabrics you were allowed to wear according to your rank in life. Even what you ate was ruled by the Church and the monarch's decree: meat only on certain days, fish on others, no eggs or dairy during Lent, and many other rules, or rather laws for, if you broke them, you faced major fines, imprisonment or death.
We’re free now. Or are we? At 18 I knew I would never mortgage my life to buy a house. I worked three jobs to buy steep, blackberry-covered mountainsides, tolls and a truck; used a mattock to build the entrance road, built a house out of rocks from the creek and remnants of an old, other house demolished in Queanbeyan. At 24 I left a secure job to grow peaches and obscure vegetables and eventually, out of desperation (not confidence I could ever make money writing) sent some work to publishers of books, newspapers and magazines.
We have our own homemade power systems, though these days we are on the grid too; our own water system; a home-built (but certified) septic system; trees for fruit; and wombats to laugh at and study. Bryan and I have chosen each stage of our lives since we were teenagers, not always wisely, but rarely simply following expectation.
I haven’t lived as long as Peaseblossom, but I have lived long enough to see Australians lose freedoms they took for granted. Back in the 1970s land could never be resumed except for a national emergency — the government negotiated. Major projects from mines to ports to freeways were evaluated to see if they added or subtracted from the national good. These days an environmental impact statement is created by the developer and if the courts say the project breaks the law, the government changes the law.
My education – a good one – was free, with scholarships that made it possible from Year 10 till I graduated from university. It gave me the freedom to think – as important as the freedom to own a home – to love the land and know it will be safe. Every Australian could see a doctor when they needed to for free; if you had little money you had legal help — at once, not ‘maybe’ or in a year’s time.
We have lost so much and never noticed. Freedom cannot be given. It must be taken. But once you have it, use it, and hold on tight, or it may vanish like a fairy in the night.
Hard things in the last month:
1. Accepting that the crutch and I will be mates for a long time — that last year’s surgery was, in another surgeon’s opinion, not just inadvisable but resulted in so much damage, further surgery might well make things worse. There is still pain and even agony if I don’t stick to a careful regime. But, on the other hand I have two legs that work most of the time and, for long periods and on level ground away from crowds, they can manage without the crutch.
2. Drought. Bushfire. The death of a brave man I never met who was water bombing fires to the south of us. The certainty there is worse drought and worse fires to come.
The Last Dingo Summer
Age range: 12+
The latest in the Matilda Saga. A killer lurks amongst the kindness of the Gibber’s Creek community. Merv Ignatious’ body has been found in the burnt out church – but other bodies lie below him.
Many had good reason to kill Merv, the man who so viciously assaulted Jed at the age of 15, and who tried to kill her and her unborn child in the bushfires – a fire he had lit. But who would kill him on that day, or leave his body in a sacred place?
Fish Johnson fights to clear suspicion from Jed and Sam McAlpine, and from Scarlett, now finally taking steps from her wheelchair. But Fish too has secrets: the disappearance of an unknown man who recently appeared as her Vietnamese refugee father, but who has now vanished again.
This is a story of secrets, but also of love: love of family, of friends, of community, and the land about us.
Age range: 10+
The ‘the author is terrified and needs to explain this book to everyone’ book has been published. The reviews so far are wonderful, but I am still unsure if I should have written it, or written it that way.
Just a Girl is set in Judea in 72 AD as the Roman army move like bloodthirsty locusts through the land. Two girls, an old woman, a Roman slave left for dead and a goat shelter in a store cave.
All of which is fiction. But interwoven are the memories the old woman tells of her childhood in Nazareth and marriage in Jerusalem, and a woman called ‘Maryam’. And these parts of the book are based on decades of study and research of possibly the most famous but least known woman in history, be she known as Mariam, Maryam, Maria or Mary.
Which is what terrifies me. This book is set before the Christian gospels were written, apart, possibly, from the Letters of Paul; before Islam and in a time of turmoil, with young protagonists who would not know or be able to perform the duties of their religion.
It is a book about a central religious figure, but without the religion some readers will expect. It isn’t there because much of it had not yet been formulated.
But Mary/Maryam of Nazareth took what might have been the most tragic story in the world, and made it one of joy. She was a woman of extraordinary courage, a teacher; and very much an historical person that we know of from primary as well as secondary sources. Her life can also be seen as testimony — like so many others of her sex whom history has dismissed or diminished, this woman was never ‘just a girl’.
Age range: 14+
World War I is over, but can there ever truly be peace?
Sophie Higgs, Australian heiress, faces the revolutionary turmoil of Europe to rescue her fellow student, Hannelore, the Prinzessen von Arneburg.
And what of the mysterious Miss Lily? Can she ever return?
Even love seems impossible, as the women who helped win the war are expected to forget all they achieved on the battlefields. Sophie is torn between her very different feelings for Nigel, Earl of Shillings; Dolphie, patriot and enemy; and ‘John’, the man who carves stone crosses on Sophie’s Australian property for every man who has died under his command.
This is the second in the Miss Lily series, a cross, perhaps, between James Bond and Downton Abbey, as well as following not just the changing role of women, but how we see ourselves.
Age range: 8+
Barney Bean now has his dream, his own farm. But when Elsie suddenly falls desperately ill, the secret of why she will not speak is revealed.
This story reveals more of the secrets of our past: the French invasion ordered by Napoleon, and the women like Jeanne Barre who disguised themselves as men to take part in great scientific adventures on voyages across the world.
Age range: 11+
This is the best book I have written and the most deeply important. It is a book that matters – and I have never said that about my work before.
Goodbye Mr Hitler is the third in the loose trilogy that began with Hitler’s Daughter and Pennies for Hitler. It is the story of Johan; of Heide, who has now become Helga Schmidt; and Georg’s mother.
The book still has too powerful a hold on me to write about it – if I could summarise it I wouldn’t have needed to write the book. Perhaps this quotation from the last chapter might say what I can’t about the book and why it is one that so many need to understand, now, today, before the world begins another insane spiral that, as an historian, I recognise too well:
The world has many ogres. Some, like Mr Hitler, do not even know that they are ogres, but dream they are the hero of the story.
But I have learned this in the years since I was ten years old: when you see injustice, stand beside each other and seize your spears. My spears are made of words. Yours may be different. But do not hesitate or look away. If too many look away, the ogres win. To be mostly deeply human we must risk our lives for others. Only when we stand together can we be truly free.
It is not easy fighting ogres. No one who fights an ogre comes away unscarred, even if you cannot see the wounds. And so you owe the ogre hunters this.
When the ogre has been vanquished, sit down upon the quiet earth and try to understand the ogre’s anguish and his twisted fear. Only by understanding can we stop them rising in our midst.
When you understand, forgive.
And then stand up, and live.
Age range: 12+
As grass dries and the hot wind howls, Gibbers Creek will burn. But if you love your country, you will fight for it.
Facing the Flame is the seventh in the Matilda Saga, a heartbreaking and powerful story of the triumph of courage, community and a love for the land so deep that not even bushfire can obliterate it.
Set in the late 1970s, this book tells the story of a small rural community suffering through a debilitating drought. When bushfire catches and spreads, the people of Gibbers Creek must come together to defend their home and all that they have worked for; a dangerous struggle that many Australians must face each year.
Lu Borgino has been recently blinded, but she battles flames to save a racehorse, even though her dreams of being Australia's first professional female jockey have been destroyed.
Scarlett O'Hara risks her hard-won life at medical school and the new love of Alex Romanov, to save a child.
Flinty McAlpine draws on the local knowledge of tens of thousands of years to protect her valley.
All the while Jed Kelly must escape not just bushfire, but the man who plots to kill her with its power.
There have been fires before, but not like this.
Facing the Flame is written for both teenagers and adults.
Some events are ‘possible’, i.e. not confirmed yet or details still being organised. While I’m travelling again now, my legs were damaged in surgery last year, so I need to travel with a crutch, which puts limits on how long I stand or sit. I’m trying not to let the damage stop me, but it does mean there’s a bit more involved in travel these days.
For bookings, check the terms on the website and/or contact Booked Out.
9 September: Free writing workshop at our place; booked out except for locals (kept a few places just for them)
18–20 September: Events in Hunter Valley, NSW
8 October: In Woden, ACT for Sharing Stories with International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) and National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature (NCACL)
22–23 October: Events in Northern Tasmania
24 October: In Canberra (again) for National Children’s Week event
10–11 November: Events in Yackandandah, Victoria
Late-January 2019: Free workshop at our place in the valley entitled, ‘This is where the stories come from’ with the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association (ALEA). Date to be confirmed when the family work out their January plans.
Also next year: several other events are already booked, including Book Week in Charter’s Towers. More details closer to the time.
What is Leadership?
I’ve just been asked a to write a few points about leadership by two Year 6 students, as they admired my own.
But this is what I wrote: "... thank you for you[r] lovely letter. I'm not sure I understand leadership though, as I'm not one [sic]."
I've seen leadership, perhaps, with my son in his ‘house’ at school, encouraging those that needed it, nudging others that might need that too, enabling the whole house to find a consensus and, step by step, to achieve what they wished to do.
I'd be more likely to come up with a new idea no one had thought of, give an inspiring speech, then head off to come up with another 100 ideas, hoping someone might take up the idea and make it happen. And only 25% of my ideas work at most, and maybe 10% work well.
If I had to lead a party of survivors I could probably do it, but through knowledge, not leadership. I sometimes dream that after my death my brain might be taken to guide a colony on another planet, but again, that would be to plan and come up with ideas or assess data. None of that is leadership. I'm a better advocate — an advisor.
Possibly a true leader can take everyone to where they want to be, but also inspire them to an excellence that they had never quite thought of before but wished they had.
So... leader? No. Inspiration? Sometimes, even often. Insight? Sometimes or often for that, too.
I suspect a leader is both born and trained by other leaders. I remember my son coming back from a bushwalk having learned that a true leader does not stride ahead as an example, but walks at the speed of the slowest, as they need guiding most. (I'd probably have been off on a side route discovering a rare shrub and not noticing their need.)
A leader has empathy and compassion, can correlate data, come up with a strategy and meld many wishes into one plan. They are capable not just of putting others before themselves – which I do when I'm not focusing on an interesting piece of data or writing – but are aware of others always.
True leaders are rare. Don't confuse them with those who inspire you, or delight you, or whom people follow for a day or week or year because they are charismatic. A true leader will never try to trap you by making you share their hatreds, anger or racism to bring you together. If you will excuse the intrusion of religion, I believe His Holiness Pope Francis is a leader, as well as an inspiration.
The students sent an email back saying, "Don’t worry that you are not a leader. We have people coming who are."
I emailed back saying that, actually, I was querying as to what a true leader was, but they didn’t reply.