The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton
Jaxie’s always dreamt of running away with her. It’s just he never expected to have to leave in such a hurry. Setting out to cross the saltlands of Western Australia on foot, he might be more prepared than most. But he’s still likely to run out of food and water before he’s even halfway to where Lee lives.
As his luck turns good, then bad, then good, and bad again, Jaxie’s on a real hero’s journey of survival, in which he must learn to embrace his vulnerability as well as his strength. Although it took me a little while for the young narrator to win me over, I found Tim Winton’s tenth novel for adults a poignant coming-of-age story about domestic violence, intergenerational friendship, religion and teenage love.
As with much of this author’s fiction – see my review of his previous novel, Eyrie – it’s also about masculinity and trust. Thanks to Picador for my review copy.
Sal by Mick Kitson
True to type, she sees no point confiding in her teachers. Although well aware that Robert’s behaviour is criminal, she fears reporting him will result in separation from her sister if the sisters were taken into care. So, after a year’s preparation, including watching numerous videos on YouTube, she kills Robert and sets off with her sister for the Galloway forest.
Extremely practical, Sal is much better equipped to survive in the wilderness than I would be (although I could have given her a lesson in pacing as a navigation technique). And fortunately Peppa has a cheerful disposition, is devoted to her sister and up for adventure. Of course, they haven’t been able to plan for all eventualities but, when the worst happens, luck takes over in the form of a hippy survivalist with an interesting back story of her own.
Teacher and former journalist Mick Kitson’s debut novel is probably as optimistic a take on teenage runaways, childhood neglect and sexual abuse as it’s possible to get. I agree with some Goodreads reviewers who have categorised it as YA, although I didn’t notice it flagged this way on the publisher’s website. (That’s not a complaint, although I do feel the real life outcome would have been darker.) Thanks to Canongate for my review copy.
For other novels about survival in extremis see Anna, Gold, Fame, Citrus and Station Eleven.
The hero’s journey and survival narratives
As Charli mentions in her post, some people struggle with the term “hero” – count me in on that! My tatty 1985 Collins Concise refers to a man (but I won’t get distracted by the gender cock up) distinguished by exceptional courage or who is idealised for such by others. Of course it can be used more broadly – and often is, especially in relation to the military – to include people forced by circumstances to behave as if they are brave and noble, but I’m a little uncomfortable with this.
The teenage narrators of both The Shepherd’s Hut and Sal begin the journey in classic hero style, with a call to action they reject. They’ve both considered leaving their abusive families several times before embarking on their journeys, but was it really heroic to leave? Of course it was hard, but it would also have been hard to stay. They weren’t choosing adventure over safety, but the lesser of two evils. Their lives were already shit.
While my head’s buzzing with thoughts about this right now, I’m going to leave them for another post. But I’m excited to think I’m getting to the roots of my ambivalence towards the hero’s journey story structure and possibly moving towards how I’d amend it to better reflect my own personal truth.
And so to this week’s flash fiction prompt. While Charli has managed a neat segue from buttons to the hero’s journey and back again, I can’t see a link to these novels about teenage fugitives. So I’m taking my 99-word story from what I hope will be third novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, in which the same incident sends the three point of view characters into their separate “caves”. In its current incarnation “button” appears twenty-three times, seven of which are in the scene I’ve condensed here.
Finding the button in the drawer, Henry was six again. He licked the grooves, but he couldn’t taste her. He sniffed the Bakelite, but couldn’t smell her. He smoothed the underside across his cheek, but couldn’t touch her. Still he remembered her folding his fingers around it moments before she left.
Henry’s shoulders sagged. Even in those austere times, a button was a shabby gift for a small boy.
Yet his memory insisted. Tilly crouching in the hallway, her brown suitcase alongside. Entreating him to keep the button safe until her return.
Fifty years on, he was still waiting.