'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Sunday 12 September 2010

Review: Lost! A True Tale from the Bush

The quality and style of this beautiful book is something the National Library of Australia does so very well. A hardcover, cloth bound book with dust jacket, Lost! A True Tale from the Bush is not only a gorgeous feat in editing and design, the research and passion held in its pages are magnificently done by history-loving author Owen Reeder.

Lost! follows the true tale of three young children who found themselves lost in the Wimmer District of Victoria in the winter of 1864. Incredibly, the children survived for nine days and the story became one of legend, dramatised and elaborated on by various recounters over the years.

Owen Reeder's version of the disappearance of the Duff children is sourced from actual eye-witness accounts and newspaper articles. She has factionalised (not a political group but instead a portmanteau of 'fact' and 'fiction') the story into a warm yet dramatic first-hand tale that puts us in the shoes of these darling little mites and the difficulties that beset them during this remarkable experience.

When Isaac (9), Jane (7) and Frankie (almost 4) leave the family home to search for some twigs for their mother's broombrush, the young children don't venture far into the bush, yet become horrified when a small error of direction finds them very far from home.

Gathering rainwater in a hat, eating new grass, berries and whatever else they can find, the children walk almost 100km from home, yet survive with little more than the nightly covering of Jane's outer dress and the physical and emotional closeness and moral support that truly saved their lives.

Encountering snakes, dingoes, ant swarms and terrible weather, the children play games, bolster each other and continue bravely onward - but what struck me about the children's story is their never ending faith that they would see their home again - the children collect twigs for their mother's broom and Jane promises little Frankie his mum will repair his tattered pantaloons.

Changing scene between the children, the distraught parents and various search parties, the drama is dramatically heightened, causing much avid page-turning and blurring of the vision with tears. The pain mother Hannah Duff must have gone through is palpable - and the ensuant discovery of the children, just in the nick of time, is pure exhilaration. The moment John Duff finds his children, laying like babes in the woods, wrapped in each other's arms, is certainly the stuff of legend.

From the opening pages, Owen Reeder has written a finely balanced storyline - poised delicately between warm adventure and heart-wrenching terror (perhaps the latter has more to do with the fact that I have kids of my own at the same age of the Duff children). The voice she uses is also balanced in that it strides confidently between older and younger readers with an inherent simplicity and yet descriptive complexity that draws the reader into another world.

The book is beautifully illustrated with paintings and illustrations from the National Library's extensive collection (including illustrations by the author herself) and original watercolour paintings by William Strutt, an English illustrator who lived in Australia and became entranced by the Duff children's story.

The book is also interspersed with a series of information pages with such luscious headings as Circuses, Bushrangers and Battledore: Children's Entertainment in the 1860s and Bush Rats, Parrot Pie and Possums: Food in the 1860s, which feature illustrated and most fascinating fact files on life as it was in the nineteenth century Aussie bush. No Nintendo DS or playstations, that's for sure. Older children will be fascinated.

An epilogue and references to the National Library of Australia's exquisite collection of artwork completes this remarkable book - a superlative blending of storytelling, detailed research, history and adventure that's a must for every Australian household.

Lost! A True Tale from the Bush was a CBCA shortlisted book for the Eve Pownall Award, and won an Honour Book award from the Junior Judges Project.

Title: Lost! A True Tale from the Bush
Author: Stephanie Owen Reeder
Publisher: National Library of Australia, $29.95 RRP
Publication Date: 1 October 2009
Format: Hardcover with dust jacket
ISBN: 9780642276865
For ages: 8+
Type: Fictionalised Non-Fiction