All the Green Year, by Don Charlwood (OAM, 1915-1912), is a classic coming-of-age story, made all the more pleasurable to read because it takes place not all that far from where I live. It’s set in not-now-so-fictional Kananook, in Frankston, about half an hour away by car, and although Charlwood’s story takes place in 1929, the beach and the glorious view from the top of the hill is familiar because we often drive through Frankston on our way to the Mornington Peninsula and beyond.
In the introduction, Michael McGirr notes that this book was a set text for many ‘baby boomers’ at school and that many of them still cherish their battered copies. The battered copy at left must be one of these: I found it in an OpShop some time ago, always meaning to read it, but not doing so until Text sent me their reissued edition. (Much nicer, and not falling apart!)
It’s a great story. Charlie Reeve is 14, in that no man’s land between childhood and adulthood, and 1929 is a year of ‘outlandish’ happenings for him. It’s the year he inadvertently rides a camel to school, gets his foot caught in a rabbit trap, has to go to his first dance, and – even more perilously – make the acquaintance of one of the most ‘dangerous’ girls in town.
It’s also the year when he must pass his Merit Certificate, because his whole future depends on it, but life conspires to make that as difficult for him as it is for his even less privileged mate, Johnno.
It’s the Depression, and money is always tight. A trip to the pictures is a rare luxury and a hire car up to the Eye and Ear Hospital is half a man’s weekly wage. Charlie’s father is a frustrated man, studying fruitlessly to improve his prospects at work, and exasperated by his demented father-in-law, a former sea-captain who likes to bellow instructions from the verandah to the ships out at sea. To care for him, the family has had to move from their own home to ‘Thermopylae’, Grandpa’s house high on the hill, where the winds blows through its creaking timbers and the whole house smells ‘old and musty’. Here Charlie’s neighbour is Squid Peters, one of those infuriating sneak-cheats who manages to get away with everything, and he gets Charlie and Johnno into more trouble than they deserve. To add insult to injury, Charlie’s parents think he’s a lovely boy and a much better influence than Johnno.
Charlie doesn’t just have his father’s bad temper to put up with, he is also belittled by Old Maloney, one of the meanest teachers ever characterised in fiction.
There he was on that hot February morning squinting through his glasses, nose screwed up, nicotine-stained teeth clenched, scalp white, moustache cut so short that you weren’t sure whether it was a moustache or whether he’d forgotten to shave for a few days; butterfly collar making marks on his neck; wooden-handled strap in his pocket. (p29)
Charlie is a bit of a day-dreamer and Johnno is no scholar, and the pair are constantly in strife at school whether they’ve done anything wrong or not. There is a brief reprieve when Old Maloney is replaced by Miss Beckenstall, and for a while, the boys are taught by someone who has faith in them. Alas, this leads to disaster when one of Johnno’s compositions is read aloud to the class when Old Maloney comes back. His intention is to humiliate Johnno, but it’s another student in the class who is shamed by it. Johnno’s actions in trying to prevent that leads to a climax which is heart-stopping.
Humour, mischief, drama, and excitement, this book has it all, and I can see why it is a well-loved classic of Young Adult fiction. Charlwood was also a distinguished author of non-fiction, including the autobiographical Marching As To War which won the Christina Stead Award for Literature in 1990 – but I suspect that All the Green Year is the book for which he will most fondly be remembered.
Author: Don Charlwood
Title: All the Green Year
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing