Racing the Moon by Michelle Morgan
Allen & Unwin, 2014. ISBN 9781743316351.
It is the year that Donald Bradman scored 334 runs against England in the third Test; the year that Par Lap won the Melbourne Cup; the year that each end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge met and the year that Australia was thrown further and further into the Depression after the collapse of Wall Street and the world's economic woes were widespread. Growing up in those times was hard, pleasures were few and struggles persistent.
But nevertheless, 12-year-old Joe Riley still thinks the world is his oyster. Living in Glebe in Sydney, he's got a couple of thriving businesses going with his mate that make him enough pocket money to get by, while his father makes his living a step in front of the law as a bookie. Even though his father gets drunk and bashes Joe's mother, and is quick to take off his belt and deliver corporal punishment whenever he thinks Joe has stepped over the line, that's an accepted way of life in these times and while he steps in to save his mum, Joe takes the rest of it in his stride. It is what it is and it's no different for his mates.
But one night, Joe's father drops a bombshell - instead of going to the local high school, Joe will go to boarding school at St Bartholomew's on the other side of the harbour. Clearly his form of discipline hasn't prevented Joe from getting into trouble - trouble that comes too close to home for his father's liking. Alone, friendless and in trouble with prefects and brothers for the slightest indiscretion, St Barts turns out to be the epitome of the tough, brutal, unforgiving Catholic boys' school that have been the subject of news headlines and government inquiries lately, and includes Brother Felix who takes a greater interest in Joe than he should. Protecting himself, Joe lashes out and finds himself on the train to The Farm - an isolated reformatory school with no escape options. And it is here that Joe discovers joy through hard work and responsibility, and an inner strength that he didn't know he had.
While this is her first novel, Michelle Morgan, a teacher librarian from the NSW Southern Highlands, is an experienced writer having had four of her plays produced and performed. The story of Joe is the result of the stories her uncle told her about growing up in suburban Sydney in the 30s and if you looked up 'larrikin' in a dictionary you might see the definition as 'Joe Riley'. He's that rough-and-tumble, knockabout, free-spirited lad that we think of in those times - old enough to be independent but not yet an adult of 14 and expected to work to support the family. This story is a great insight into life in those times, great background for the history focus for Year 6. Certainly a great vehicle for comparing and contrasting childhood then and now. I loved the uplifting and reaffirming way that Joe rises above challenges to triumph - his burning of the hated St Barts uniform is a mirror of what I did on my last day of school. Joe, indeed, races the moon both literally and figuratively.
This story is skilfully written, the pace is swift and it kept me so engaged I finished it in two sittings. As I was reading it, particularly the section about St Barts, I kept asking myself if this would be suitable for a primary school audience, because although it is not explicit, there is a clear allusion to Brother Felix's intentions and I wondered if parents might feel confronted if their child asked them about this. But I've decided that I'm reading it from an adult perspective, one that has more information than that of a child, and so maybe it won't be such an issue. I believe it is essential that such things should not be neglected especially as they are an integral part of the story, but you need to be aware that it could cause questions to be asked. If I were still in my primary library, it would be on the shelf with a Senior Fiction sticker on it (probably more to protect me than the student).
Nevertheless, this is an auspicious start to what could be a lengthy career as a writer for the YA market and I look forward to reading more of Michelle's work. Her website is here. Notes for teachers by Fran Knight are here.