The year is 1962, and fourteen-year-old Harry Hodby lives in a small town in Australia. His mother died when he was seven, his friend (and potential girlfriend) Linda was swept away in a flood, and he, along with his father and younger brother Keith, are left to sort out their hardscrabble lives, coping with poverty, jealousy, anger, and despair. It is Harry’s deepest goal to leave this town for a better life, but he knows that people who leave this town never come back.

A novel in poetry written by one of Australia’s most popular poets, this is a deeply moving and haunting depiction of adolescence. Once I read through the first five or six poems, I was hooked, and read the rest of the book in one go. We do not do nearly enough with poetry in our English classes, and while that is reason enough to recommend this book, I recommend it because it is beautifully written, with an intriguing story that links these poems together.

Because some readers may be put off by the thought of reading an entire book of poetry, I include two selections below. Although they are taken out of context, Herrick’s ability is such that they still make sense on their own. (“Pearce Swamp” takes place where Linda drowned.)

These are highly accessible, yet complex, poems. I challenge anyone to read the following two selections and not want to read the rest of the novel.

Pearce Swamp

I take off my clothes
and place them,
folded,
on a rock.
I walk slowly into
the cold water
and swim to the middle.
A mild ripple
creases the surface
as I roll
on my back
and look up
through the red gums
to the cloudless sky.
My breath is slow in my ears.
It’s all I hear
as I float,
knowing
I’m alone
with the ghost
of the swamp,
somewhere
near the weeping willows.
No one visits this place,
except me
and the mysterious ring-bearer.
At school
Linda
would sit near the oval,
surrounded by girls.
They talked
of music,
and clothes,
and the secrets of the weekend,
until the rainstorm
drove them all indoors,
except Linda,
holding out her hands
to catch the heavy drops
that ran down her cheeks
like perfect tears.

 

Love

I wake
to Keith’s snoring
and I swear he whispered
“Sally” in his dream.
Love?
I tiptoe to the kitchen,
open the creaking door
and sit on the back step,
listening to the town.
The moon
is a shiny silver fingernail
that throws enough light
for me to see the cane toads
hopping silently around the yard.
A rooster crows
from across the railway tracks
and I check my watch.
Fifteen minutes
until Dad wakes.
I return to the kitchen,
Take the old metal saucepan,
and empty two cups of porridge,
some water and milk,
and place it quietly
on the stove.
Today
is Dad’s birthday.
And no matter
how young or old you are,
you shouldn’t make breakfast—
not on your birthday.
Not in the cool dark.
Not on a Monday.
Not alone.
Now without someone you love,
and someone who loves you.

By the River has won the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature and was named a Children’s Book of the Year Honor Book for Older Readers by the Children’s Book Council of Australia.

You can visit Steven Herrick’s website here, and can purchase a copy of this book from Amazon here.

Works Cited 

 

Herrick, Steven. By the River. Asheville (North Carolina): Front Street, 2004.

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