Monday, August 20, 2012

Serendipity and silkworms:

It was a happy accident that I picked up both Michael Gerard Bauer's The Running Man and Belinda Jeffrey's One Long Thread around the same time. Bauer's book was published in 2004 and Jeffrey's just this year, and although one is about a young boy at the fringes of his teenage years and the other about an older girl already navigating those murky waters, there were similarities between the two books that surprised and delighted me.

Both books possess a sort of natural, unaffected Australian sensibility. There is a subtle, quiet awareness of place and its value in shaping the identity of a growing young person. In what is a rarity today, both books are strongly character-centric, focussed on the interchange of relationships and the unfolding of everyday events rather than on cataclysmic, action-packed moments.

Both, too, are coming-of-age stories. In The Running Man, Joseph grapples with the absence of his less-than-perfect father while attempting to make sense of his reclusive and tormented Ashgrove neighbour Tom Leyton. In One Long Thread, Ruby Moon is left stranded and bewildered by the splitting in half of her family through divorce. She stays with her loving, stable dad in Sydney while her twin sister Sally is taken off to live with their fragile, increasingly religious and ritualistic mother in Darwin.

Both books are about young people finding their place in the world by meeting head on with the pain and grief of others. Neither of the books shy away from the tough stuff. The Running Man deals with war, post-traumatic stress disorder, the loss of faith, and ugly rumours of inappropriate behaviour towards children. One Long Thread explores divorce, death, and teen pregnancy. But both treat these subjects gently, reverently, and respectfully.

Perhaps the most sweetly startling of the similarities, though, was the fact that silkworms play a powerful role in both stories. These unassuming little creatures provide the catalyst in both books for the breaking down of relational and psychological barriers. In The Running Man, the care and feeding of a silkworm colony (is that what they're called?) slowly builds a bond of friendship in an otherwise intense and awkward environment. In One Long Thread, the process of harvesting silk from the insects' cocoons helps Ruby open up and explore her feelings of abandonment, loss, and confusion, all the while drawing close to a beloved family member she never expected to get to know.

The Running Man by Michael Gerard Bauer (2004) is published by Omnibus Books. One Long Thread by Belinda Jeffrey (2012) is published by the University of Queensland Press. Both are beautifully-written works of Australian fiction for young adults.