Facing the flame by Jackie French
Harper Collins, 2017. ISBN 9781460753200
(Age: 15+) Set in the 1970s, this story continues the 'Matilda saga' about a family and community set in the town of Gibber's Creek in the New South Wales high country.
When bushfire threatens, all members of the community pitch in to fight desperately to protect life and property. The nightmarish terror of a firestorm driven by high winds and massive fuel loads, tearing through forests and communities on multiplying fronts is described well.
The acts of valour and sacrifice demonstrated by desperate people, some of whom have lost everything but who continue to labour for days in hellish conditions are authentic depictions of what is a frightening reality for many rural Australians.
Unfortunately this novel does not stand alone well and my impression is that it is expected that readers are familiar with all the other previous works in the series. Relationships between family members and community identities are poorly explained and in my view, too many characters are involved in an unnecessarily busy and overly long prelude to the main action. The inclusion of strong, female characters is refreshing and I liked the fact that these differed from the usual lazy presentations of beautiful young women as central characters. In this story, the wisdom and experience of age is valued, intelligence and compassion is celebrated and the capacity of people with disabilities to contribute to the community is presented.
What made me uncomfortable was that at times, characters were almost caricatures in the sense that they appeared to be an overly romantic and maudlin vision of what country people are like. I felt that the link to Banjo Paterson's works was too obvious and a little garish, with an ancestor named Matilda, a matron named Clancy and a woman known as 'Nancy of the Overflow'. Choosing to assign the surname 'Kelly' to one side of the family also appeared to lack imagination and naming an important character 'Scarlett O'Hara' seemed too much until a handsome young man called 'Alex' who was descended from the Romanov family appeared.
The bravery and stoicism of those facing the infernos and the kindness and generosity of the community's response to the tragedy were aspects worthy of presentation in this novel. To that extent, the author succeeded. Unfortunately I felt that some depictions of characters and subplots were a bit silly and this detracted from the overall story which doesn't seem to meet the high standard normally associated with Jackie French.