August 3, 2014
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Tomorrow, When The War Began

by John Marsden

This was the first electronic book that I borrowed from the public library.

Summer is winding up in a small Australian town. Two high school girls get permission to take some friends camping in the outback before they return for their last year of school. The parents insist they take along at least four, preferably six, additional kids; Ellie wryly admits that this is meant to reduce the likelihood of an orgy and considers her life far less interesting than the one her parents keep imagining she has. And so they choose our motley crew of kids they’ve always known (the rowdy boy from the farm down the road, the piously Christian girl who is good at sports) and a few kids from school whom they don’t know well but who seem interesting. They have a nice week. Things go well.

They come home, looking forward to hot showers (and a few cold showers) and find instead that Australia has been invaded, that everyone has been rounded up at the Commemoration Day Fair. Nobody feels much like turning themselves in. In moments, we’re in the midst of Red Dawn.

What makes this work, and what what doomed Red Dawn, is that Marsden need not carry around the baggage surrounding rural tea-party America. These country kids are strikingly competent – our protagonist Ellie doesn’t have a license but she’s been driving tractors since she was six. She can dip sheep, shoot rabbits, and tend chickens, and make a fire for the billy-can. But she gets along with a stoner, a rowdy joker, the quietly intellectual Thai/Vietnamese kid whose family run a restaurant in town and the devout Fundie girl. This used to be us, but it really isn't anymore. Combined with the effortless sexual politics that seems a common note of Australian pop culture, that makes Tomorrow, When The War Began a nifty romp.

It’s also a thoughtful story in which characters experience violence and think through the consequences of the terrible things they’re doing. Marsden catches nicely how, when things change, they don’t all change at once. Late in the book, as we’re resting for the final combat, Ellie asks one of the other girls what she’s reading. It turns out that it’s My Brilliant Career. “She said, ‘Yeah, it’s OK. We’ve got to read it for English.’” They’re in the middle of a guerrilla war, one of them’s already been shot, but we’re still getting a head start on a school year that’s never going to come.