I went on a trip to the River Murray in year ten. My main memory of the trip is a story about a dead body that was found in the river. I thought about it the whole trip. I remember the uncertainty of stepping into the murky river and the need to launch into the water as soon as possible to get away from the slimy feel of the mud and the reeds. These memories were evoked by the opening chapter of Mallee Boys. Readers will find it easy to identify with many of the events in the story and the down to earth characters.
Mallee Boys is a narrative of a year in the life of two boys and their Dad. It is uncommon to have a book with only male protagonists, which gives Mallee Boys a unique edge. The chapters alternate between the viewpoint of fifteen year old Sandy and that of his eighteen year old brother, Red. They have little in common. Sandy is clever and shy, but not very practical. He is in year ten and, as his school doesn’t offer year eleven and twelve, he is considering the options he has to continue his studies. Red was ready to leave school at the end of his very first day. He eagerly left school when he finished year ten and started working on the farm. For the last year he has been angry and is frequently picking fights.
The one thing the boys share, apart from DNA, is the fact that their mother died in an accident twelve months ago and they are still reeling from it. Both feel guilty for different reasons but they can’t talk about it. Boxes of her things line the hallway of their house. There are lots of things they should be doing, but they are stagnant in their grief. The family keep putting one foot in front of the other to keep the farm running and get through the day.
The family expect that things will change at the end of the year based on Sandy’s decision about school. He has to decide whether he will leave school, study by correspondence or attempt to gain a scholarship in the city. Sandy has to decide what he wants, and then apply. The outcome will set the course for their future. Yet changes come a lot sooner than they expect, partly due to Red’s new friend, Ryan. Ryan is a bit of a loose canon, and really nasty when he is off his face. His off-hand attitude helps Red to get through the initial months after the death of his mother, but cause big problems when Red finds he starts to care about things, especially Ryan’s friend Lisa.
The stories of Red and Sandy will reverberate with many young men, as they interact with their Dad, juggle responsibilities, hang out with their mates, try to figure out girls and process their grief. There are some light-hearted and memorable threads such as the encounters with The Duke, an enormous brown snake, and their dad’s fashion choices. It makes a great tale about living with grief and regret, which is suitable for readers across the young adult spectrum.