The Ghost of Howlers Beach
Angus $ Robertson, 2020
272pp., pbk., RRP $A16.99
Butter O’Bryan lives in a Very Small Castle with his father and three aunts – Aunt Elephant, Aunt Cake and Aunt Peculiar. These aren’t their real names, of course, just as Butter’s father isn’t really called ‘Pongo’.
And even though Butter is only twelve years old, and the grandson of one of Australia’s most successful Jam Kings, he is very aware of the hardship many people are experiencing.
Butter has been told there are ghosts at the nearby isolated Howlers Beach, but are there? And how can the children Butter plays cricket with on the beach simply vanish? Who are these children and why do they refuse his help?
The Ghost of Howlers Beach just sounds like one of those old-fashioned Secret Seven or Famous Five stories that generations have enjoyed for years, and in a way, it is. But this one has the unique Jackie French touch of magic, and rather than being a contemporary novel as those adventures were, this one takes the independent reader back to The Depression of the 1930s when the ramifications of World War I were still very evident and the realities of being unemployed, or worse, being a woman without a man but with a family, or even worse, being an indigenous person, are brought to light. With a light hand and intriguing characters, French brings to life life in the “susso camps” ; the great divide between the haves and the have-nots and the ever-present threat of diseases like polio before vaccines were available.
Read against the backdrop of today’s coronavirus pandemic and the worldwide economic collapse, it is very clear how far we have come in less than 100 years in both health, economic and social support and perhaps put things in perspective.
The subtitle to this novel is The Butter O’Bryan Mysteries, #1 and with the cast of characters now set hopefully more will follow quickly as we not only enjoy a good, meaty story but one that teaches us about a time not that long ago but eerily familiar all the same.
The timing of its release is remarkable (set long before the current virus was even heard of) and while there are comparisons that can be made between now and then, knowing that its setting and background are based on reality there is a sense of optimism that current times will pass and we will come out of the other side. Perhaps changed, but definitely intact.