My spare heart by Jared Thomas

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Phoebe has a lot of problems. Following her parents’ separation, she is resentful of having to start a new school, living with her father and his yoga-health-freak girlfriend Caitlin. Aware of her mother Bronwyn’s risky drinking, Phoebe has to hide her worries for fear of her father’s explosive anger. Anxiety builds as she is led to lie and cover up for mother. The new school is also a challenge – it is different to anything she is used to, and being the only Aboriginal student there are no obvious supports when she has to deal with racist comments.

Thomas confronts stereotypes in this novel: Phoebe’s father is Aboriginal, a university lecturer, and not much of a drinker, whilst her non-Aboriginal mother is sliding into alcoholism. At the same time the adults all around Phoebe like to have a drink, and even her friends are starting to experiment with alcohol and drugs. It is hard to know where the line is drawn. These are all issues that many teenagers have to navigate.

Thomas’s depiction of Phoebe’s love for her mother, and her resentment and hostility towards her stepmother Caitlin is incredibly realistic, especially the way she spurns Caitlin’s efforts at friendliness, and deliberately seeks to annoy her. But the reality of her mother’s addiction and unreliability sees the tension build until Phoebe has to accept the support of people she has kept at arm’s length.

Thomas deliberately sets out raise awareness that there are support groups available to help young people cope with an alcoholic person in their close circle. It is not about changing the alcoholic, but of finding ways to manage the relationship. He quotes the Al-Anon mantra to ‘accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference’.

The values that come through strongly are of belief in Country and culture, and the benefits of participation in sport and music. Phoebe finds her inner strength and builds ways of coping with the problems that beset her. Those life lessons would hold true for every young reader. 

Teachers’ notes are available on the publisher’s website.

Themes: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Anxiety, Alcoholism, Racism, Friendship, Identity.

Helen Eddy