The road to Gundagai by Jackie French
Matilda saga, book 3. Angus & Robertson, 2013. ISBN
(Age: 10+) Recommended. Australian history, Depression. After her parents have been drowned at sea, Blue goes to hospital when a fire destroys her house and all of its contents. Her aunts take her from the hospital before she has recovered from the dreadful injuries the fire wrought on her body. But she does not get any better: her hair is falling out, she vomits all her food, retches at the thought of it, and so stays alone in her room. Her only friend is Mah, the Chinese girl who worked for her parents on their farm, and whose warning saved her from being incinerated.
Blue sees a circus pass her window and decides she must go and see it, and does, although during the Big Top main event her aunts sweep in and take her home, locking her in the room. The dwarf and fortune teller from the circus steal her from the room, telling her she is being poisoned and that the fire was deliberately lit.
So begins this adventure story like no other, jam packed with events straight from a Girls Own Annual, but set against such a detailed and exact background it defuses any questioning. French's love of history shines through, her knowledge of the minutae of people's lives is telling as we hear of the Depression and its affects on people particularly in rural Victoria and then New South Wales, as well as details of the circus and the travelers, the clothing, housing and food of the times.
But she surprises us even further, as this becomes a murder investigation, a crime novel with a strong sense of setting, one that readers will read over and over again.
The character of Blue is marvelous. The injuries caused by the fire and then her aunts' intervention are shocking, and all readers will sympathise with her, wondering as I did, about her lack of movement and feeling the pain when she moves unexpectedly. Her bravery and courage is paramount, her willingness to overcome obstacles laudable, her need to feel attractive most appealing to the target audience. It is her story that carries the book: readers will want to know how she survives and what becomes of her, who is trying to keep her under wraps, and just what do these people want.