There and Back Again (with apologies to Bilbo Baggins)

The choice

This is the choice: join the procession of cars and trucks conga-lining up the Hume Freeway, or, catch the train from the station a few minutes’ walk from home.  My destination is Bowral where I will meet a friend travelling from Sydney. It is to be a recreational day; I opt for the train.

My ‘home’ station is Queanbeyan. Built in the 1880s, the station, according to its heritage listing, is ‘a fine example of a Victorian first-class station building … signifying Queanbeyan as an important location in Southern NSW, even prior to the declaration of Canberra as the nation’s capital.’

As Canberra evolved, Queanbeyan regularly suffered the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. It was derided as a shabby ‘struggle town’, eking out its existence on the border of the booming capital. But when I arrive at the station building on the morning of my journey, the sun is bursting warmly above the trees, and there’s a welcome party of magpie song and cherry-plum blossom. The slings and arrows pass me by.

Company on the journey

I board my train at 06:54 precisely and begin the slow crawl through the cuttings and tunnels beside the Molonglo River. I unzip my Kindle from its joey-like pouch. I have two newly downloaded books. One is Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race, the other, Kate Morton’s The Clockmaker’s Daughter. I have been anticipating the latter for some months, but I opt for delayed gratification and choose Clarke’s memoir instead.

Cover image courtesy of Hachette Australia

Clarke’s book seems more fitting in a week dominated by community debates over whether a cartoon in Melbourne’s Herald Sun, depicting tennis player Serena Williams, constitutes racial vilification, and whether, given the choice, Indigenous youths in Western Australia would apparently prefer death by drowning over arrest and incarceration.

In Clarke’s prologue, I read her personal reflection: The cumulative effect of being subject to racially motivated incidents is ‘like a poison: it eats away at the very essence of your being. Left unchecked, it can drive you to the unthinkable’. Just like those boys in Perth.

The lie of the land

The train mooches on, oblivious to the trauma on the page, and rattles into Goulburn. Entering country towns via the railway tracks is like coming into a house through the servants’ entrance. The rail route exposes the face that is usually turned away from public view. We slip past rolling stock and shipping containers and empty wooden pallets, the detritus of industry.

Schlerophyll forest_1

Schlerophyll forest and mproved pasture

Moving off again, we pass a jigsaw landscape of dry sclerophyll forest and ‘improved’ pasture. A green skin lies across the cleared paddocks – a false hope in the midst of drought. A truer story is told in the cracked earth of empty dams. I wonder how we conceived the term ‘improved’ pasture for this denuded land; how we came to think of it as an improvement on the grasses and trees that had adapted to the soil and climate conditions over millennia.

My phone rings as the train pulls into Bowral station. My friend is waiting for me at the junction of Wingecarribee and Bong Bong Streets. Both names reference the region’s Indigenous past. ‘Bong Bong’ is Bowral’s main street, the name linking back to one of the groups of Gundungurra people who call the area home. There used to be a white settlement called Bong Bong, on the road to the present-day town of Moss Vale. The settlement was short-lived, unlike the culture of the people who bear the name.

Book towns

After coffee at The Press Shop and a perusal of the stationery at Bespoke LetterPress, my friend and I make our way into the Spring sunshine. We roam up and down Bong Bong Street, venturing into several bookshops. In the plainly named Bookshop Bowral, I come across a copy of Alex Johnson’s Book Towns: Forty-Five Paradises of the Printed Word. Although Bowral does not appear in the International Organization of Book Towns (IOBT) register (the one Australian entry is Clunes in Victoria), Johnson includes the Southern Highlands town in his list.

According to the IOBT, a book town is ‘a small rural town or village in which second-hand and antiquarian bookshops are concentrated. Most Book Towns have developed in villages of historic interest or of scenic beauty.’ I think back to the largely unremembered history of the Bong Bong people and the beauty of a dry sclerophyll forest. I’m not sure this is what the IOBT has in mind.

Reading on…

It’s time to re-trace my steps to the railway station and make my way back to Queanbeyan. On the return trip, I pick up Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race once more.

My reading will continue on after my train journey ends. It will be several days before I reach the section in which Clarke recounts being repeatedly given abusive notes during her school days. On one of these notes was ‘a cartoon drawing of a black girl. Her lips were swollen to a ridiculous size. Her afro was tatty and minstrel-esque. The girl’s broad bulbous nose took up half her face…’ I could be reading a description of the cartoon published by the Herald Sun.

The thing is, unlike Clarke, I can put this book down at my reading journey’s end and walk away in the relative security of my white skin. Although, that’s not completely true – every journey changes me, if I let it in.

Links and sources

Bowral Station platform

The Appeal of Series Fiction – It All Begins in Childhood

I enjoy series fiction. Mostly crime series, it must be said. Whether it’s Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk trudging across the landscape in contemporary Australia, or Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy cruising the streets of Belfast during ‘The Troubles’, or C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake plying his legal trade on the equally dangerous streets of 16th century London, I’m there with them – book after book after book.

What is the appeal of series fiction? I have a hunch that, for me, it goes back to the series I devoured as a child. I grew up on a diet of Amelia Jane and the Bobbsey Twins before graduating to Pippi Longstocking and the Silver Brumby. (My persistent bristling at being told what to do can surely be laid at the feet of Astrid Lindgren and Elyne Mitchell.)

Series fiction, whether for children or older readers, is often dismissed as a lesser form of writing, just one peg above ‘pulp’ fiction (which also often runs in series, thereby being slammed with a double dose of snobbish disdain). Series fiction is reviewed less often and with less analytical rigour than standalone titles. A quick search of the Australian literature database, AustLit, reveals just 11 critical articles about series, and only a couple of dozen shorter newspaper columns on the same subject.

But even if the academy largely ignores series, publishers and readers don’t. Dipping into AustLit again, I find records for over 1,100 book series published in Australia since 2010. If publishers are accepting proposals for series in such large numbers, and taking them through the not inexpensive editing, publishing and distribution process, they must recognise a market for sales. Why are readers buying these books?

Why so popular?

Let’s go back again to children’s series. How many Australians, growing up in the middle decades of the 20th century, read Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong books or P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins titles? Perhaps they were fans of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five or favoured the American Stratemeyer Syndicate’s Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Maybe it was English translations of Asterix and Tintin that drew them in. Later in the century, along came the Baby-Sitters Club, Diary of Wimpy Kid and Goosebumps.

Cover images courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia

And just before the new millennium ticked over, Harry Potter turned up. His wizarding journey was published between 1997 and 2007. Has any other series generated the rapturous response afforded to the Hogwarts cohort?

UK academic and children’s literature specialist Victor Watson believes that reading series fiction ‘is not just an obsessive eccentricity’. It is, rather, central to our discovery of ‘the most important reading secret of all – that fiction can provide a complex variety of profoundly private pleasures, and that these pleasures are repeatable and entirely within the reader’s control’. We become friends, as Sydney-based teacher, editor and author Judith Ridge puts it, with characters who remain ‘reassuringly themselves from book to book’.

Transitioning from child reader to adult reader

And perhaps that is at the heart of why I still read series, both those written for adults and those intended for younger audiences. It is a private, repeatable pleasure in the reassuring company of familiar characters.

Cover image courtesy of Pan Macmillan Australia

For children and adults alike, a book series creates a sense of connection – between author and reader, and between reader and character. Alongside the heartening familiarity is the buzz of expectation. In C. J. Sansom’s series, Matthew Shardlake has, so far, doggedly survived the rule of Henry VIII, and outlived both Cromwell and Cranmer. Now he faces new challenges under Elizabeth I’s reign. A book series couples predictability with anticipation.

There is also an element of control in reading a series. Young children might be facing upheavals and anxieties at home and school, they could be glimpsing uncertainties in the world at large. Within the pages of a book series, they can return again and again to a place of security. There is comfort in ‘the assurance that any problems that arise will be resolved in a satisfactory way’ (Ward and Young, ‘Engaging Readers through Series Books’). Is it so different for adult readers? I think not. Sean Duffy survives the bombs of the IRA and the machinations of the FBI in Adrian McKinty’s series. And Aaron Falk, despite his troubled and somewhat dysfunctional personal life, manages to apply his policing skills with insight and efficiency in Jane Harper’s series.

Cover image courtesy of Pan Macmillan Australia

The distance between Pippi Longstocking and Sean Duffy is really not so far. I still enjoy the warm blanket of series fiction in a sometimes chilling world. And in case you’re wondering whether I’m excited that the seventh book in C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series and the third in Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk series are being published in October 2018 – you bet I am!

Share a Favourite

If you have memories of a favourite series that fostered your reading life, or if you’d like to recommend a series, please add your thoughts in a comment.

Links to series

Here are some of my favourite series from recent years. The list is alphabetical by author. Some of the series are suitable for children (*), some are for adult readers – all are cracking good yarns.

Image courtesy of Hachette Australia

Image courtesy of Goodreads

Other sources

  • AustLit: ‘an authoritative database about Australian literature and storytelling, with biographical and bibliographical information, full text, exhibitions and rich online content’.
  • For more about the Stratemeyer Syndicate and its many series (including the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew) visit the site ‘dedicated to the legacy of Edward Stratemeyer’.
  • Watson, Victor. Reading Series Fiction: From Arthur Ransome to Gene Kemp. London: Routledge Falmer, 2000.
  • Ridge, Judith, et al. ‘Series Fiction.’ Magpies: Talking about Books for Children 18.5 (2003): 10-12.
  • Ward, Barbara A., and A. Terrell Young. ‘What’s New in Children’s Literature?: Engaging Readers through Series Books.’ Reading Horizons. 48.1 (2007): 71-80.