Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Grace Beside Me - Sue McPherson

It is 2008, the year Kevin Rudd says sorry to the Stolen Generations and all affected by their plight, and a year of significant change for Fuzzy Mac who lives with her Nan and Pop in the small country town of Laurel Dale – Laurie as the locals call it. Fuzzy – christened Ocean Skye by her hippie mother, but nicknamed on account of her fuzzy hair – has always lived with her grandparents. Her father, Sonny Boy, is often away with work and her mother died of an overdose when Fuzzy was a baby. However life with Nan and Pop is anything but a raw deal – it’s rich in family ritual and infused with the importance of culture. Nan, a Koorie, has dreams and premonitions; it’s nothing for her to strike up conversations with the spirits of those who have passed. However living with Nan also has its moments, especially when she expresses an opinion on something. About saying grace for instance: ‘Been bustin’ me belly all day makin’ this all taste good and proper … the tucker will be buggered. The Lord knows we are all grateful, so we don’t need to be tellin’ him over and over every mealtime’. By osmosis Fuzzy is inculcated with the vernacular of her grandparents and sometimes her friends wonder what she’s on about when she talks about bloomers, listening to the wireless or taking a Bex.
Fuzzy’s story includes a wide and colourful cast of characters as we meet the members of her wider family and community: her best mates Tui Mui and Teddy Ryan; Bruiser Buchanan who likes the drink and beats up his wife; Lefty and his nasty dog Dunlop, who Nan describes as ‘mad as a bloody meat axe’; creepy Mr Ridgeway, the town Mayor; Father John, who reminds Fuzzy and Pop of Fred Flintstone; the bad Mullins boys and their beautiful sister Mary; and of course next-door-neighbours Yar, who is ‘a real funny bugger’ – a man with a doctorate who occasionally wears tutus over his clothes and is followed around by a spirit called Bruce – and Yar’s wife Jilly, to name a few. These characters add a veracity and authenticity to Fuzzy’s telling of her story.
Grace Beside Me is Sue McPherson’s debut young adult novel. In 2011 she won the black&write! kuril dhagan Indigenous Writing Fellowship, a partnership between the State Library of Queensland and Magabala books, which recruits, trains and mentors Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and editors to develop Indigenous-authored manuscripts. The result is warm-hearted, gutsy and humorous.. The voices of Fuzzy Mac and Nan, the main characters, are superb. Written with her own sons in mind and teenagers who are likely to dip into a book and not necessarily read it in its entirety, each chapter is an entity in itself, often loaded with a teaching point or message. Although, initially, I was expecting the book to take the usual course of a novel and follow a stronger overarching plotline – which perhaps I would have preferred – shaped as it is in the style of a teen memoir, with Fuzzy as the narrator, Grace Beside Me with its strong characterisation, will hold broad appeal. It highlights the importance of family, friends, and belonging and the beauty of embracing everyday life in its varying shades. What comes through in McPherson’s writing is the role of story in Fuzzy’s life. ‘Stories link us to our mob, doesn’t matter if you are Koorie, Irish, Kiwi, Welsh or Indian … these stories bring our people close, both young and old. Stories keep our culture strong and our faith alive’.
Grace Beside Me is down-to-earth, funny, poignant and original. Sue McPherson, with her unique approach to storytelling – albeit with the cheeky inclusion of a bit of moralising – has produced a book that will warm the hearts of her young adult readers.
Magabala Books 2012
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 27, Issue 2, May 2012)

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