Review Blog

Sep 28 2011

When we were two by Robert Newton

cover image

Penguin, 2011. ISBN 9780143566830.
Sometime around 1916, seventeen year old Dan and his younger brother Eddie leave home from Gunnedah to walk to Port Macquarie, hoping to find their mother who left home many years before whilst escaping their violent father. The boys are ill prepared to undertake this road trip and by necessity find themselves associating with various characters, good and bad whom they meet on the journey.
Eddie has an intellectual disability from a brain injury caused by near drowning when he was small and the greater part of the tale is centred around his elder sibling's protective and loving nature toward him. The complexity of this relationship is gradually revealed during their adventure which is realistic when considered in the simpler, more austere time in which it is set.
Plausibly, the boys encounter the unpleasant side of life, however Dan's ingenuity and courage prevail and they soon find themselves in the company of a family whose daughter shows them kindness. On the next stage of their journey Dan and Eddie meet a delightful character called Ah Ling. The boys initially find this Chinese man confronting with his limited language and strange customs, however his benevolence and wisdom soon prevail and the boys accumulate skills and knowledge from him as they journey onwards.
The latter half of the novel involves the pair falling in with a band of volunteer soldiers who are marching to the same destination to enlist. These likeable ruffians contribute depth to the tale as their background stories and daily interactions involve humour and pathos which occasionally relates to the boys' own experience. Concepts such as decency, resilience, dedication and responsibility are presented and considered by the various characters who are led by the fatherly figure Henry who is firm but fair with his comrades, including the boys.
The concept of where you're going, as opposed to where you've come from is a powerful theme in this narrative as is the consideration of relationships founded upon choice, alongside bonds from birth. This enjoyable story will appeal to and have meaning for early and mid teens. The cover illustration is especially poignant.
Rob Welsh

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