Black Sunday by Evan McHugh
Omnibus, 2016. ISBN 9781743627990
(Age: 11-15) Recommended. In February 1938, the largest mass rescue on an Australian beach took place when up to 300 people were swept out to sea from Bondi. I knew very little about lifesaving before reading this novel and found it informative and moving, to the point that I now have some understanding of the immense pride and affection that beachgoers have for their local lifesaving clubs and brave members.
Suitable for eleven to fifteen year olds, the story is told in diary form by Nipper, a boy of twelve who idolises his Grandfather and his lifesaving colleagues who patrol the beach at Bondi. Normally I find diary entry chapters tiresome, however the author has worked hard to make the story more interesting than simply leading to the main event, by setting time and place in the context of the post-Depression years in the prelude to World War 2.
Sometimes writers of historical fiction feel compelled to include every tiny detail of remote relevance from their research and there is faint evidence of this. However on the whole it works well and I completely understand why the author chose to do this, given that modern readers may have little appreciation of the simplicity of a time when children routinely left school at thirteen, possessions were few and the sight of an aeroplane was a magical wonder.
Some might consider the inclusion of Indigenous, environmental, gender, refugee and geopolitical issues to be a little busy and contrived. This is because they are all tied in to the story and certain characters voice modern, socially acceptable points of view as a counter to the prevailing attitudes of the time. This will however help younger readers understand historical perspective.
Importantly, this is an exciting story with plenty of structure and drama which recounts an amazing historical event without being a boring lesson. On this momentous day, a series of colossal, freak waves dragged hundreds of people far out to sea in dangerous rips which prevented their return. By chance, a large number of lifesavers beyond those on duty were present for training and they soon plunged into action. What happened was truly stunning and the reader is brought to understand the enormity of the feat by Nipper's description of rips and long training periods where he tries to improve his swimming to a standard which will serve him in later years as a lifesaver.
Informative historical notes are included at the conclusion of the story.
This delightful book would make an excellent text for study at senior primary level and libraries should consider it for general reading.