Warning: Graphic Bushfire Related Imagery
Dear Miss Hotston, where ever you are, I have a confession to make. You set Ash Road as our Year 7 English text. I didn’t read it beyond the first couple of pages, because I thought it was boring, and the boys were “old fashioned”. I probably copied my essay. Having been now released as a Text Classic,, I decided to read it (for the first time). I am truly sorry I didn’t read it then. What a book.
Ivan Southall directly experienced the 1962 Dandenong Ranges bushfires, their farm in the outer east of Melbourne was threatened by the fires, and the family were forced to evacuate. This experience formed the basis of the book, published 3 years later.
The book focuses on a fire in the Dandenong Ranges, accidentally lit by boys who were camping. It unfolds over 24 hours, and tells the story of those left behind while the men are off fighting the fire, the children, the women, and the elderly, those we call often call “The Vulnerable”.
There are a number of things I find impressive about the book, now close to 50 years old. Southall builds the tension of the summer’s day. Literally, the heat sears off the page. For anyone who has experienced an extreme summer’s day in southern Australia, the anticipation of the heat, and the first shreds of unease come through on the pages. Feelings slowly turn from an annoyance, and frustration into uncertainty, and then with realisation, fear.
The descriptive powers of the narrative are frightening and beautiful.
“Ash was eddying on the wind like snowflakes , fragments of burnt fronds, pieces of charred leaves. Probably it had blown for miles. The sky was full of it.”
And while I am in two minds about ascribing human characteristics and emotions to natural phenomena, again anyone who has experienced these days will know..
“It was an angry day; not just wild or rough, but savage in itself, actively angry against every living thing. It hated plants and trees and birds and animals and wilted from its hatred or withered up and died or panted in distress in shady places. Above all it hated Peter.”
There is also an interesting take on the management of the fire. Volunteers are called up from the ranks of able bodied men (no training required). The approach to fighting the fire was abandonment, at which Grandpa bemoans. The men directing the fight don’t know those houses are homes. Back in his day, people would stay and fight the fire. Interesting how we have been through this cycle with “Stay and Defend”.
It is an intense, frightening book, and leaves you in no doubt about the power of the fire. But it also shows you the resilience and the resourcefulness of those we do consider “vulnerable” as they deal with adversity. I think it should be set again as a text for students to read. IF we are to start to recreate a wisdom over the power of the natural environment in which we live to cause misery and damage, then these are the books that need to help us, particularly us city slickers, understand.
Above all, though, it’s a cracking read.
Death Cab for Cutie