by Steven Herrick
Published by Allen & Unwin
276 pages, 2007
Chapter and Verse
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
There are a number of writers of verse novels in Australia, both for adults and for young readers. It’s probably one of the few ways a poet can be published professionally, by a major company, instead of having to self-publish. Gone are the days when readers would go to the bookshop for the newest volume of verse by their favorite poet, so poets usually publish on a small scale and sell their works privately.
Verse novels are good, at school level, for encouraging reluctant readers. Each “chapter” need only take a page or two and a lot of meaning can be conveyed in a few words. You can tell the story from the viewpoint of several different characters in a way that just wouldn’t work in prose, and get into the minds of each of them with the minimum of description and detail.
You have to be good at it, though; if you aren’t capable of telling a story with some depth, you might as well not bother trying a book in verse. Margaret Wild, best-known in Australia as the author of a number of very good picture books, has, in recent years, written some first-rate young adult verse novels, probably helped by her skill in telling the maximum story in the minimum of words.
The most prolific author in the field, though, is Steven Herrick. Herrick has been telling stories in verse for young readers, from children to young adults, for many years, in between visiting schools as a performance poet.
In recent years, his books have changed from the gentle quirkiness of Love, Ghosts and Nose Hairs and The Simple Gift and the humour of his junior titles to the grimness of Lonesome Howl and the current title. The novels, whatever their style and whatever their storylines, are generally about family, but the family problems are different from book to book. Jack in Love, Ghosts and Nose Hairs, speaks to the ghost of his mother, whom he misses, while he watches his father gradually form a relationship with his teacher. The hero of The Simple Gift is also the son of a widowed father, but leaves home without regret and forms another family relationship elsewhere. In Lonesome Howl, there was an abusive father. In Cold Skin we come across more family problems, but they are different again.
Most of Herrick’s novels are set in modern Australia. Cold Skin takes us back to the 1940s. In the regional mining town of Burruga, shortly after World War II, teenage boy Eddie Holding lives with his parents and his brother Larry in a shabby cabin built hastily by the family after they were evicted from their old home on the grandmother's death. They are considered the town’s “trash.”
The father had returned from the war more stressed by the fact that he wasn’t allowed to fight than by the war itself; he considers himself a coward. He refuses to go down the mine and so has the low-status job of a farmhand. Eddie would like to leave school and work in the mine, but his father, Albert, won’t let him do that. Eddie’s brother, Larry, is planning to work hard at school until he can leave and get a good job somewhere other than Burruga, but meanwhile is spending a lot of time getting drunk on stolen beer and leering lustfully at Colleen, a schoolmate. Colleen is a bright girl, but her beauty gets her a lot of unwelcome attention from many of the town’s males.
When Colleen’s body is found near the river late one night, by the town’s sole policeman, he has to try to decide who is the murderer. Is it Larry Holding, who was seen drunk and having a go at Colleen and some friends the same night? Perhaps it’s the town’s mayor, who was also drunk on the night of the murder? Is it Mr. Butcher, the incompetent school teacher who hates his job and goes into town weekly to use prostitutes because he can’t get any girls in Burruga? What about Mr. Holding?
Eddie has his own ideas about who the murderer is, but what he finds out is totally unexpected -- and will make a great difference to his life.
Cold Skin is sad and deeply moving, but could not have been told in prose. Like Herrick’s other books, it packs the maximum punch with the minimum number of words. Though set a long time ago, it discusses issues to which teenagers can always relate. It should appeal to young adults who are reluctant readers and there is enough meat in it for class discussion. Well worth checking out. | November 2007
Sue Bursztynski is the author of several children's books, including the CBC Notable Book Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science and Your Cat Could Be A Spy. Her fiction has been published in various SF magazines. She publishes two blogs, a general one at http://greatraven.blogspot.com and a review/SF blog at http://suebursztynski.blogspot.com. She lives in Australia.