The Ghost of Howlers Beach by Jackie French
The Butter O'Bryan Mysteries. Angus and Robertson, 2020.
(Age: 10+) Highly recommended. Jackie French has done it again! This is a wonderful piece of fiction for young readers that weaves a story within a historical period of history, making it accessible for those who may have limited understanding of the Depression or of the impacts on life in Australia for the returned veterans from World War I. Butter O'Bryan is the 12-year-old central character (this is not his real name, but nicknames are prevalent in this family!), a young boy whose family is somewhat protected from the worst of the post-war dilemmas, but they too have suffered loss as Butter's mother died in the previous year in the Polio epidemic. Butter lives with his doctor father and aunts in their "Very Small Castle" - the result of their inheritance as children of the 'Jam King'. When Butter encounters three children in the bay close to home it seems at first that he has met a family of ghosts. The mystery surrounding these children continues and slowly they become intertwined into the summer holiday experience for Butter. The solving of the mystery leads to understanding and care, compassion and a future for many families living a hand-to-mouth existence on the limited hand-outs from the government.
The setting of the coastal castle (albeit small) is charming, but the caring nature of Butter's family is delightful as they slowly become aware of the needs of first three children and then many, living just beyond their doors, through a period of dreadful hardship in Australia's past. The Depression and the hardships that individuals faced also highlights the paternalistic society and inherent racism and sexism that now seems so strange. Hindsight reveals why so many social changes needed to occur.
What French manages to do most successfully is to make a page-turning narrative that will appeal to young readers, male and female. With cricket games on the beach, food choices that are all basic 'Australian' fare and the freedom for young characters, mixed with the horrors of pre-antibiotic life and health-care that often excluded the poor, this is an eye-opening story. From the opening line, when a skull is discovered on the beach, young readers will be hooked. At the end of the story is also some background historical detail to explain the 'Make-do' era, the 'Susso' payments or the 'dole', multiple 1930s recipes, and other reflections on 1930s life. For our children of the 'throw-away' or 'instant-fix' era who have many easy solutions to problems, this will be a worthwhile introduction to this history.
I am hoping there will be more Butter O'Bryan mysteries. Themes: Family; Historical Mystery; Post-World War I History; 1930s Depression; Australian History - Fiction; Polio; Mental illness.