The Ghost of Howlers Beach
by Jackie French (Angus & Robertson) PB
Reviewed by Jeffery E Doherty
The Ghost of Howlers Beach is the latest historical fiction book for children by Jackie French and appears to be the first in a series called The Butter O’Bryan Mysteries. The story takes place on the east coast of NSW, in the early 1930’s during the Great Depression.
Twelve-year-old Butter lives in a Very Small Castle with his Father and three aunts, whose real names are not Aunt Elephant, Aunt Peculiar and Aunt Cake. Although Butter is the grandson of one of Australia’s most successful Jam Kings, he is still aware of the hardships and suffering of the people around him. This becomes more apparent after meeting three children and their dog playing cricket on his beach. Butter believes the children are from the nearby susso (sustenance payment) camp. The children are secretive and when they vanish, Butter wonders, who are these children and why they refuse his help? He is certain Gil, Olive and little Tish are hiding a secret and he is determined to uncover it.
You can teach children facts and figures about events in history like the Great Depression, polio epidemics, the aftermath of war, rampant unemployment and the suffering and helplessness of people who can’t even afford to feed their families. I remember learning about these topics in school, but they had no tangible effect on me because it was almost impossible to conceptualise what living in those hard times would be like.
Jackie French lures the reader into this world through the eyes of her naive and caring narrator, Butter. He comes from a wealthy family and is not suffering like the families living in the Susso camp, but his family is broken in other ways. This is a story that touches the heart and brings history to life in a way my history teachers never did.
One of the main take-a-ways from this book for me was the reoccurring theme of helplessness. The helplessness of the damaged soldiers returning from war, the unemployed and their families living in desperate poverty, the children living in fear of being taken away by the authorities, but also the helplessness of kind-hearted people who see such enormous issues and cannot find a way that they can make a difference. This is a theme that has great relevance with current issues like the recent devastating bush fires, the refugee crisis and climate change.
The Ghost of Howlers Beach is an excellent book and I highly recommend it for readers 8-12 years old. I would also recommend it to teachers who want to bring this period of history to life for their students. There are some great teaching resources at the back of the book dealing with the cause of the Great Depression, the Susso, making do, Indigenous Dispossession, Don Bradman, as well as some interesting recipes from the time.
Original Review on Buzz Words Magazine
Jeffery E Doherty is an children's writer and artist who writes chapter books, picture book texts, junior and young adult novels.