Review Blog

Sep 04 2014

The simple things by Bill Condon

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Allen & Unwin, 2014. ISBN 9781743317242.
For every Christmas and birthday of his ten years, Aunt Lola has sent Stephen $10.00 and, at his mother's insistence, he has dutifully written to thank her. But he has never met her and doesn't want to - what would a ten year-old city boy and an old spinster aunt have in common? But as her 80th birthday approaches, Stephen's parents take him for a holiday with her - and she is all that he is expected: crotchety, pedantic, set in her ways and a bit scary. How long can three weeks last? Like many of today's children, because of scattered families he hasn't had much to do with the elderly and he's a little afraid of what to expect - not made any easier by his shyness. But as the days go by, both begin to learn about each other and themselves, and the joys the simple things of life can bring. Through Stephen's innocent questions and observations, Aunt Lola learns to let go and Stephen learns some surprising life lessons through simple things like finally catching a fish and his discovery that Aunt Lola has kept every one of those thank-you letters!
Tempered by dad-humour (a close relative to dad-dancing), this is a gentle story written with compassion and understanding from both points of view. Aunt Lola has kept a secret for over 60 years that has tempered her view of the world, particularly trusting others like her neighbour Norm, while Stephen learns to look beyond his fears and begins to develop understanding and empathy. It is a story of hope and joy that touches on some important issues about relationships and acceptance by focusing on characters that are so ordinary and real they bring the story to life. They could be someone the reader knows.
Beth Norling's quirky line drawings at the beginning of each chapter add an extra layer to what appears to be a simple book but really is one of some complexity. It is skilfully crafted by an experienced author (Condon says there were several complete rewrites of it before he was satisfied) to help our younger readers realise that older people are just another generation, not another race. As our parents and grandparents live longer than they ever have, our children are going to experience their ageing in a way that previous generations have not, and so anything that builds a bridge of understanding and acceptance (from both ends) has to be welcomed.
Old age is a privilege not a right, and there are many who don't get to enjoy it, so there are many children who don't get to experience the love and warmth that a great-grandma or great-grandpa can offer. Having had the most loving grandparents and now being one, I know the riches grandparents give and receive. Stephen is lucky that he learns to love Aunt Lola and that love is reciprocated. Would that all our kids could experience such a special relationship.
This would be a perfect accompaniment to a study of family history and the continuum of life.
Barbara Braxton

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