Tough times: 1931: do you dare? by S. Mitchell

cover image

Do you dare? series. Puffin, 2014. ISBN 9780143308010.
1931 is a scramble through the mean streets of Melbourne's Fitzroy as seen through the eyes of Max, aged about eleven. It is two years into the Great Depression and unemployment is hitting Australia's working-class families hard. When the book opens, Max's father is still in work as a boot maker, although on reduced hours of two or three days a week. With three children and the family pet, Fungus ('a constant irritation underfoot') to feed, and the mortgage to pay, money is tight. Tom's love for his parents and siblings, especially his four year old brother Petey, are a highlight of the book. Tom's best friends from the Daredevils gang are Samson, whose Dad died in the Spanish Flu outbreak and who is really poor, and Frank, one of six children at a time when families were much larger than they are today. The book appears to be written to engage boys in reading and in history and will probably succeed at both, especially with a vein of backyard 'dunny' humour and bare bums (Fungus bites the seat out of the pants of Razor, the local hoodlum) to sustain them. Girls may find it harder to relate to the adventures, though the only female gang member, Joan, is a thoroughly modern miss and the most daring devil of them all.
The figure who underpins the second part of the book is 'Mac', a benevolent, white-suited gentleman who intervenes on Tom's behalf just as it seems inevitable that his family must be torn apart. Mac is 'Australia's Willy Wonka' - in real life, Sir MacPherson Robertson, founder of Robertson's chocolate factory. In his early life, MacPherson Robertson experienced greater privation than any of the characters in the book and in later life he was a genuine philanthropist. Students can extend their learning to the life and legacy of this great Australian. South Australian children can compare his efforts to counter the worst aspects of the Depression with Sir Edward Hayward's decision in 1933 to initiate the Christmas Pageant to raise the spirits of the people of Adelaide. Other Australian 'icons' such as Phar Lap and six-o-clock closing also provide opportunities to explore the social conventions of the era.
South Australian teachers may be familiar with Max Colwell's book Half Days and Patched Pants and play of the same name. Several scenes in Tough times: 1931: do you dare? would also be very suitable to act out. Even better, in keeping with the era, students could record and present the scenes as a weekly radio show.
I would recommend Tough times: 1931: do you dare? to teachers wanting a springboard into important local and global changes in our society that occurred within the memory of older family members of the students of today.
Francine Smith