Review Blog

Mar 18 2019

The house on the mountain by Ella Holcombe and David Cox

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Allen and Unwin, 2019. ISBN: 9781760636968.
(Age: 7+) Highly recommended. The House on the Mountain is a deeply atmospheric story that follows a family's journey as they rebuild their lives after the devastation of the Black Saturday bushfires. Ella Holcombe draws on her most difficult memories, the loss of her parents at Kinglake, Victoria on the 7th of February 2009. The build up to the bushfires and the aftermath of the harrowing events is told in a beautifully lyrical style: there is a rawness and honesty portrayed. Sights, sounds, smells are realistically portrayed. 'The sky looks strange, dark and glowing, and there is a distant roaring sound, like an aeroplane approaching.' The author writes of hope rising from the ashes as the family slowly rebuilds their lives. She explains the range of emotions, the rawness and numbness at times, as the little girl experiences grief, loss, anger, wonder and despair.
She begins simply with the children playing in the bush, splashing each other in a cold bath, while the parents quickly prepare and pack their essential emergency items. Fleeing to safety as the smoke surrounds them and debris hits their car, the family watches from the safety of the oval as the mountain is covered in fire. Photos of teachers and students who lost their lives, displayed in the school corridor are constant and confronting reminders for the other students. Community and state supportive services, art therapy, music sessions, counselling, well-wishers from near and far provide comfort as well.
Life goes on, the family lives with their nana in her little white house, where her brothers fight more often, Mum and Dad argue and Ruby the dog follows them everywhere. This a new kind of normal, nothing will ever be the same. Day by day as the plants' green shoots appear and their mud brick home is built, hope rises from the ashes.
David Cox's evocative illustrations capture the family's life in small vignettes and then the power of the raging fire as they travel down the mountain, surrounded by smoke. He captures the emotions of Emma's story with dark earth tones of brown, black, greys and purples. Light shines in the darkest times, the camp lantern's glow and the yellow moon and twinkling stars representing hope.
The story concludes with Emma Holcombe's personal recount of losing her parents, her dog Brittany and their home on that fateful day. The House On The Mountain is an inspirational picture book, an important one to share with families and classes with readers from seven plus; opening up dialogues about life and death, hope and despair, natural disasters and the power of the human spirit to rebuild.
Rhyllis Bignell

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