Sparrow by Scot Gardner
Allen and Unwin, 2017. ISBN 9781760294472
(Age: 12+) Highly recommended. Survival, Juvenile detention, Darwin, Kimberley. Nicknamed Sparrow by the people on the Darwin waterfront cafes he has befriended, the mute twelve year old gets leftover food and a few coins after setting up chairs and helping pack them away at the end of the day. Then he goes back to his sleeping bag atop some toilets in the shopping centre. Sometimes he drifts back to his aunty's house but his brother makes this difficult. His brother and his friends are ghost boys, addicted to sniffing paint, their lips revealing a moustache of colour. Sparrow tries to stay away from them, their empty eyes reinforcing the fact that this is a path he does not want to take. But Sparrow's friend Elsa, a backpacker ends up in hospital, beaten after they went to the outdoor cinema together, and he has a good idea of who did this to the girl. But it is Sparrow who is sentenced to detention.
Gardner packs his stories so tightly that every word has an importance, each paragraph is dense with fact and background, but so easily incorporated into the story that the reader is almost unaware of what they are picking up.
Gardner's exposes the seemier layers of Darwin as he talks of homelessness, paint sniffing, drug dependence, drug dealing and children whose lives are outside the law, living on the streets. The impact of these children's lives on the reader is far more decisive than any news report or stack of statistics; we are there, scrambling with Sparrow as he finds things in the rubbish bin that will be useful, avoiding his drug affected brother, then at hospital with his dying mother.
Most of the background we hear of through flashbacks as Sparrow must use all his survival skills to live on crocodile infested beaches in the Kimberley. Now a sixteen year old in Juvenile Detention, he is part of a boot camp along the coast, but things go awry and he jumps from the burning boat and swims for the coast where he must find shelter, water and food. A man who befriended him in Darwin taught him to swim and this skill holds him in good stead in the Kimberley but once on land he must avoid the snakes and crocodiles, mosquitos and pigs while remaining vigilant for the constant search for water. He wrestles with his past and the reasons he is in detention, but when he finds another footprint, things change.
A breathless survival story Sparrow is a gripping read. Survival stories like Hatchet (Gary Paulsen) are a constant must read and often used as a class text, and this modern story set firmly in Australia, will make a remarkable read for students as a class set, literature circle or borrowed from the library. Sparrow's story is infectious, readers will be drawn in by the boy's story, working with him to survive, scrambling from the dangers that lurk in the mangroves, and marveling at the story he is finally able to tell. And with the recent expose of Northern Territory's juvenile justice system, this story has come at a time when the treatment of young offenders is being reconsidered. This is a must read.