Review Blog

Feb 10 2014

Along the road to Gundagai by Jack O'Hagan

cover image

Ill. by Andrew McLean. Omnibus Books, 2014. ISBN 9781862919792.
(Age: All) Highly recommended. Folk song. War. War does not finish when the final whistle blows, men are returning years later, the effects of what they have been through apparent on their faces and in the eyes of the grieving families. Jack O'Hagan, an Australian musician, was 20 when World War One finished, and worked for Allen's Music, playing sheet music for customers. In his career he wrote some 600 songs, and one of the earliest was Along the road to Gundagai, published in 1922, when he was 24.
Dyan Blacklock of Omnibus books gave this well known Australian song to Andrew McLean, and his re-imagining it as a story of returning home after the war is simply powerful. His research of Jack O'Hagan led him to see the song in a different light, and any person reading it with his evocative illustrations, will succumb to the emotional pull of the words and illustrations he creates. McLean gives the familiar words a new layer of meaning, a returning soldier headed for home.
Historical film, illustrations and paintings, were used by McLean to develop a series of paintings to illustrate the lines of verse. Images of war cover double pages, whereas the others, giving an impression of home, are often framed one to a page, the watercolour and charcoal images accentuating the difference between war and home.
McLean tells the story of his father as a postscript and this combined with the scant information about O'Hagan, will enable people to read this Australian folk song anew. It then is impossible not to believe that O'Hagan wrote it after seeing the men coming home from war. In a classroom or library the strands of this evocative picture book can be mulled over, kids thinking and talking of their ancestors' involvement in war, looking at the history of war in Australia and how it is commemorated, discussing the coming 100th anniversary of the start of World War One, and next year, the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli. Many, many books have been published recently predicting the rise in interest in this topic within schools, but this is one that stands alone, taking as its theme a known song and giving it a stunningly new perspective.
Fran Knight

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