Mallee Boys by Charlie Archbold

cover image

Wakefield Press, 2018. ISBN 97817430550007
(Age: 12+) Highly recommended. Themes: Siblings, Family, Death, Drought. Setting is everything in this story of one family's response to the tragic death of their wife and mother. Killed in a car accident in Melbourne, Ellie kept the household running, her husband and son working the marginal land in South Australia's mallee country. Older son, Josh helps his father after leaving school early, and younger son, Sandy is staying on at school, hoping to win a scholarship to further his studies.
The three now rub along together often unsuccessfully, as problems pile up. The farm is falling apart without mum: they have chops every night for tea, often the cause of arguments, Dad will not heed his sons' advice of using technology to map his farmwork, his machinery is old and outdated and the everpresent drought conditions put a strain on them all. Mum's death has not been accepted by any of them, the court verdict and suspended sentence a gall stuck in their throats. They are marking time: Dad began to clear out his wife's things but was stopped by Sandy, Josh often storms out of the house to stay with friends at an abandoned house on the edge of town.
Against this background, life goes on, Sandy applying for schools in Adelaide, making time to talk to a new girl in his class, Josh finding that he likes the girlfriend of his friend, Ryan.
But darker aspects of life in the country intrude: a car accident to which dad goes as an SES volunteer brings back memories he can no longer suppress, Ryan asks to store some of his things in the farm's shed, and later beats Josh up when he finds he has moved in on his girlfriend while rejections slips are posted to Sandy from the Adelaide schools. All three are under considerable stress and when Josh's girlfriend breaks off their developing relationship, things gather to a head.
This is a masterly look at three men in crisis, not talking to each other, relying on the daily routines to get them through each day. Each quietly feels some guilt at Ellie's death and it takes another accident for each to open up and finally come together. The setting is brilliantly reconstructed, offering another obstacle for each to surmount - the isolation a constant problem for each of them, as Sandy wants to further his eduction, Josh has a girlfriend two hours' drive away and they all need help that is not offered in the bush.
Fran Knight