Dilemmas in quest for safety
At the heart of both of these novels is deep concern for how the most vulnerable members of society are treated. In Promise by Sarah Armstrong, it is unprotected children who are the focus; in The Road to Winter by Mark Smith, it is asylum-seekers and, in a barbaric world, girls.
The Road to Winter is a post-apocalyptic novel, set after a virus has wiped out most of the population. Finn, almost 16, is alone with his dog, Rowdy. For two winters there’s been no sign of anyone in Finn’s coastal town, Angowrie (not unlike Anglesea in Victoria), apart from his one acquaintance, Ray, an old guy with whom he regularly swaps food. As well as general issues of survival, Finn needs to look out for dangerous outlaw gang the Wilders, whose leader, Ramage, is a violent and malevolent man. If they find him, they will certainly pilfer his supplies, and probably capture or harm him.
Out of nowhere comes 19-year-old Rose, in trouble and on the run from Ramage. Rose is a siley, an asylum-seeker who, in a harsh indictment of Australia’s present situation, has been sold off at a public slave auction. Now with Rose, who is being hunted, Finn’s safety is in jeopardy if she stays, but she is company, and it’s been too long.
Finn makes for an ideal protagonist because he always means to do the right thing; despite the horrors he has witnessed, he has no evil in him. All the characters are nicely developed but he carries the book.
The bad is not all in the past for these kids and they live every moment on edge, unable to relax. In constant danger, they have to make extraordinarily difficult decisions — more in one day than many of us will make in a lifetime.
The teenagers need to fill each other in on their histories but it can be jarring when background is given through dialogue. Smith mostly writes with a light touch, but occasionally resorts to the theatrical. In one escape scene, a teenager rides a horse with multiple passengers through rough terrain at speed while fleeing, stretching credibility too far as she reaches around and pulls Finn, who’s slipped, back on.
Dealing with some hefty issues including rape, pregnancy and childbirth, The Road to Winter straddles the young-adult and adult markets; it’s written very much in the tradition of John Marsden’s Tomorrow series, without breaking too much new ground. It fits neatly into a genre that has a large market and will be enjoyed by teenagers who have not tired of the post-apocalyptic.
This is Smith’s first novel but he has published many short stories and won prizes. He has signed a three-book deal with Text, which is offering a money-back guarantee on each copy, so it’s no surprise when, at the end of the book, one of the characters vows to avenge a sibling’s death. Will she succeed? I’d wager a fiver.
It is impossible to read Armstrong’s Promise without imagining what you would do if placed in the position of her protagonist Anna. A rough family moves in next door and she is caught up in their lives when it becomes clear five-yearold girl Charlie is in serious danger. Anna reports the situation to the police and Family and Community Services, but the latter is overwhelmed by kids in more dire need, and when the police arrive it makes matters worse. Returning Charlie, cowering in Anna’s backyard, to her stepfather would mean certain abuse, so Anna puts the child in her car and drives away.
Tellingly, when her lawyer boyfriend urges her to turn back because what she is doing is abduction, and she asks if he can guarantee that they will be able to get Charlie into care, Dave, a guy we’ve come to trust, pauses. “No, of course I can’t,” he says on the phone. “But I guarantee you’ll end up charged with a serious crime un- less you stop right now.” These, then, are Anna’s choices, and she understands the consequences.
Promise gets off to a slow start, but the tension mounts as the narrative recounts every move they make. The cumulative effect builds up the impression that far from being a crazy decision, the choice Anna makes is the only credible one open to a humane member of society. To Armstrong’s enormous credit, we come to care a great deal about what happens to Charlie and Anna. The drama at no point becomes melodramatic, which is quite a feat given a plot that involves kidnapping, the police, hiding out and lawyers.
From sensible, conventional graphic designer to an outlaw on the lam, Anna’s life undergoes a complete transformation in just a few hours. She turns to the only person she can think of who might be simpatico: her boyfriend of 17 years ago, Pat.
At first, Pat doesn’t seem like the easygoing guy she remembers, and for a moment we question whether we can trust Anna’s perspective, but his life has changed. Things are complicated now for Pat.
Things are complicated for Anna, too. She has taken Charlie to keep her safe, but the little girl wants to be with her mum, despite the abuse. Some of the people who could help Anna are instead judgmental: Should she have taken Charlie from her mother? And shouldn’t she have taken Charlie’s mother, too, given that she is living with a violent man?
The pivotal question for Anna, who lost her own mother when she was eight, concerns whether she did the right thing or whether Charlie should be with her mother regardless. In loco parentis for the first time, Anna asks herself what her own mother would have done.
The characters bloom into life with the exception of Charlie, who is understandably joyless. It is hard to get much of a sense of how she affects a room, and what she is like to be around. Even when present, she often seems absent.
The book reflects current affairs and is indicative of how people are affected by the trauma of those close by. In an interesting parallel with The Road to Winter, in Promise it is backpacker Sabine who feels unwelcome in Australia. Now that her visa has run out she is an illegal immigrant genuinely worried that the authorities might place her in detention.
Anna is probably not in a position to have kids herself now, though she might have had one once. She contemplates this while also dealing with the disappointment of her ex-cop dad who, understandably, worries. Nothing is without complication, and the messy layers of it, rather than being over the top, add to the story’s authenticity, as does the conclusion.
Anna could have ignored the bangs and cries in the night, and the girl in her yard, wet and scared. Accepting collective responsibility is one thing, but to independently take on someone else’s child in order to prevent them from further harm is a big ask.
As the news tells us repeatedly, calling the authorities is not enough to ensure the safety of a child. It should be, but it isn’t. With fierce integrity, Armstrong has written a contemporary story that absolutely needs telling. is a writer and publisher.