When Daisy Jeffrey, one of the organisers of the School Strike 4 Climate, was asked to write this essay, it was to be ‘‘On Change’’, which she regarded as ‘‘a hell of a lot easier than ‘On Hope’ ’’. Not surprisingly, given the patronising opposition that the movement is up against, this essay – bursting with the energy and longing of adolescence – swings between hope and despair as Jeffrey struggles to keep up with her school work while taking to the world stage to give voice to young peoples’ fears for the future. In documenting how she became an activist, she demonstrates that the only lasting antidote to the feelings of helplessness that breed despair is working for change. She doesn’t want adults to put their hope in young people, she wants everyone to take responsibility and take action.
PICK OF THE WEEK
Ellis Rowan: A Life in Pictures
NLA Publishing, $34.99
If Indiana Jones has an Australian forerunner, it’s got to be Ellis Rowan. The sight of this ‘‘petite, elfin-featured woman, armed with painting gear and parasol, negotiating murky swamps and snake-infested jungles in full Victorian attire’’, says Christine Morton-Evans, ‘‘amazed all who came across her’’. Controversial and undaunted by convention, she pursued her botanical specimens in dangerous locations with the zeal of one seeking the holy grail. She won innumerable medals for her paintings and became a household name both for her work and her embellished reports of her intrepid adventures. Yet she is now largely forgotten. For all the drama and tragedy of her life, her sometimes delicate, sometimes luscious, paintings steal the show in this handsome publication that, a century after her death, restores her work to its rightful place in the public gaze.
Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World
Johanna Katrin Fridriksdottir
There’s little evidence that Viking women fought in battle as popular television drama would have it. Yet Norse sagas are full of powerful, ferocious heroines, from the valkyries – supernatural beings who decide who will die in battle – to vengeful, blood-thirsty queens who use their children as political pawns. While historically unreliable, the sagas highlight the ‘‘horrific costs’’ women paid in ‘‘an unyielding culture of honor’’, says Johanna Katrin Fridriksdottir. At the same time, however, Norse laws gave married and widowed women considerable rights and security.
The author’s dilemma, in this scholarly study, is to reconcile the larger-than-life legends of monstrous mothers and terrifying shield maidens with the more mundane and complex reality of daily life for Viking women from childhood to old age.
The School of Restoration
Alice Achan & Philippa Tyndale
Allen & Unwin, $32.99
‘‘Why am I still alive,’’ Alice Achan asked herself, ‘‘when almost every person I rose for each morning is gone?’’ Her happy childhood in a village in northern Uganda had been shattered by the Lord’s Resistance Army and she was paralysed by grief. After years of struggling to get an education and a diploma in social work, she still felt overwhelmed by the brutal experiences of girls who had been abducted by rebels. An urgent desire took hold of her to open a school for these survivors of sexual violence. ‘‘In the school of my dreams, girls would be nurtured by their teachers, and learn that they are equal to any other person.’’ Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this against-all-odds story of the academy she founded is Achan’s and her students’ conviction that only forgiveness ‘‘can release us from the bondage of bitterness’’.
PICK OF THE WEEK
The Night Watchman
Louise Erdrich was inspired to write The Night Watchman by the experience of her grandfather – a Chippewa man who lived on the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota and who fought, in the 1950s, to stop the US government from dispossessing his people of their land. Thomas Wazhushk is a night watchman galvanised into action that will take him to Washington D.C. to save his community. We also follow his niece Patrice, a factory-worker with an alcoholic father, and sole breadwinner for her family. Patrice leaves the reservation for the first time determined to find her sister Vera, last seen in Minnesota. Although Thomas’ political battle has momentous consequence, what stands out is more intimate: the telling detail, the warmth and compassion Erdrich brings to her portrayal of characters struggling to navigate two worlds.
The Night of All Souls
In lockdown I recently reread Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Was there ever a writer so sharp, so acidic in her assessment of society, yet so generous in her imagination of the people trapped within it? In The Night of All Souls, she returns from the grave. Philippa Swan’s erudite homage takes a page from Wharton’s unheralded ghost stories: the author is resurrected in an anteroom to the afterlife, and given a novella about a woman who works at the Wharton museum in Massachusetts. Edith must decide whether to publish or burn the work, revisiting her own writing in the process. It may have the trappings of a ghost story, but the most appealing element of Swan’s novel is its submerged literary appreciation of Wharton’s oeuvre, delivered in tandem with lively elements of biography, and shades of the wit and style for which Wharton was renowned.
Abstract, unnerving quasi-detective fiction with traces of absurdist dystopia, Gathering Evidence draws a husband and wife into parallel investigations. It begins with a treatise on a new social media app called Nest, which collates user data and derives a unique pattern from it. Soon, no one can make serious life decisions without consulting their patterns. That menacing prospect hovers as we meet John, a programmer with a large tech company, and his wife Shel, a primatologist. Shel travels to Africa to investigate the death of bonobos in a national park. Plans change and a dangerous situation develops.
Meanwhile, John is attacked by an unknown assailant, and wakes up to visits from an anonymous medico; he must piece together his memories to discover what is happening to him and why. MacInnes has created a strangely prescient vision that fuses risks of ecological catastrophe, technological dependence, and social isolation.
The late Philip Kerr’s historical detective novels (set in Nazi Germany and featuring Bernie Gunther, a former policeman turned private investigator) were more than entertaining bestsellers. And if fans can’t look forward to further books in the series, there’s still Hitler’s Peace, which offers a twist-riddled and meticulously constructed espionage thriller wrapped in alternate history. It’s autumn, 1943 and Willard Mayer – philosophy professor, lothario and US spy – has been sent to Tehran by Roosevelt for the Allied conference with Churchill and Stalin. Knowing the war cannot be won, Hitler wants peace and only Churchill won’t negotiate. Enter Mayer, whose shadowy career may have involved being a double- and even triple-agent, and the stage is set for a spy novel with very high stakes. Kerr writes with great style and intelligence and departs from history with convincing plausibility.