The Road to Gundagai by Jackie French
HarperCollins Australia, 2014. ISBN 9780732297220.
It's 5.00am and I've just spent the last hour finishing reading The Road to Gundagai, the third in Jackie French's Matilda saga. Circumstances have meant that I haven't had to opportunity to read it one sitting as I did the previous two, A Waltz for Matilda and The Girl from Snowy River but with my new focus of reading in the gaps - all those spare minutes while you wait in hospitals or doctors' appointments or nursing elderly relatives through the night - meant that I'd made a little progress and so this morning I set the alarm for birdsong determined to devote time to finish it because, as with the others, I was so swept up in the characters' lives, I needed to know what happened.
Those familiar with Australian Children's Laureate Jackie's historical novels know of her magical ability to weave real times, places and events into enthralling fiction that takes the reader into those times and allowing them an insight into the life that is not possible through drier, factual texts, and The Road to Gundagai is no exception. In this, we follow newly-orphaned and suspiciously-crippled Bluebell Laurence in her journey as a make-do circus performer as she becomes a member of the Magnifico Family Circus, which, like many others of its kind, travels the roads during the Depression, bringing a little light and fun into lives of families living on the edge of poverty as hard times take their toll. The Boldini Brothers, Madame Zlotsky, the ringmaster and the hunchback, the clown, the bearded lady, the 'only mermaid in captivity' and the Queen of Sheba, a trickster elephant are all rich characters who bring the circus to life and will make you wonder about what really is happening at the next circus you visit.
But it's much more than a story about the behind-the-scenes illusions of a circus and a physical journey that inevitably leads to Miss Matilda and Drinkwater. Each character has a critical part to play, not only in the telling of this story but in the telling of the story of life in those times, particularly for women and girls, so while the along-the-lines reader will be greatly entertained by a grand tale, the between-and-beyond-the-lines reader will get so much more and want to know more. And Jackie provides a taste of that in her notes at the end, particularly about equal pay and jobs for women. Your female students may not realise just what their grandmother's generation were faced with and what we/they did to change things so their lives are what they are. As a public servant in the times, I well remember how many friends lost their jobs just because they chose to marry.
Those who know my reviews know they come from the heart, and those who know me know a little of my life lately and so they will also know that to find a book that can allow me to escape into another world, even for a little while, has to be one that is totally absorbing with a powerful plot that is crafted by a master writer. The Road to Gundagai, indeed the entire Matilda saga is just that and I can't wait for the next two, even if it means the saga will be over. This is a series that needs to be right by the circulation desk to greet your students as they return to a new year's reading journey and I thank Jackie for sharing it with us.