Spook's Shack, by Wendy Orr

Reviewed by Sally Odgers

Finn is between worlds. His old house has been sold, and his parents have flown to ‘the biggest city in the world’ to choose a flat. Finn is left to spend the hiatus with his mother’s aunt, Agatha Greene. Agatha lives on a bush block between a farm belt and Boris Banks’ mansion. She tells Finn to watch out for snakes, explains the procedures for surviving a bush fire and basically leaves him to himself.

Down in the bush, Finn discovers a fire-singed shack. When he enters, he wakes the inhabitants; an old swagman, Jack Henry, and his collie, Nipper. Jack and Nipper are surprised to find themselves waking as ghosts, but they discover that swallowing green fungus from the inside of the shack renders them easily visible.

Finn makes friends with the odd pair, and together they rescue a joey wallaby, foil the land-grabbing Boris Banks’ plans to foreclose on Aunt Agatha, and preserve her house from a fire.

The plot may sound like a standard bush/fantasy adventure, but the style, the themes and the deft interweaving of worlds and times sets this novel apart as something rather special. The narrative is both elusive and allusive, as Finn moves through Jack Henry’s world experiencing the old ghost’s kinship with the local wildlife and introducing him to the modern joys of radio, computer games and mobile phones. Their shared fascination with one another’s knowledge and skills is touching and very believable. Jack’s life story is one of wandering and betrayal, of a friendship turned to enmity with Boris Banks’ ancestor. The past impinges on the present, and the various elements of the plot move forward in a dream-like way. At times, the reader is enmeshed in Jack Henry’s perception, either directly or while he is recounting an incident to Finn. This led to me needing to reread a few brief passages, just to make sure I really understood what was going on.

There is humour in the story, but Wendy Orr has not taken the easy route of making Jack Henry into a comic figure. As Finn discovers, Jack is not dangerous, but allowing himself to become immersed in Jack’s world is. The thrilling defence of a goat and kid from a pack of dogs is a triumph – but the appearance of the farmer with a gun brings real danger to Finn.

In the end, Jack redeems his long-ago betrayal with a favour for an undeserving enemy, but it is not the redemption that could send Jack into limbo…

Symbolically, Jack casts off his modern delights, but Nipper is able to join him – somewhere. Aunt Agatha has her happy ending, and Finn is able to move on to the next thing; his life in ‘the biggest city in the world’.

Spook’s Shack, by Wendy Orr (illus. by Kerry Millard.)
Allen & Unwin 2003

Sally Odgers is a Tasmanian author of children’s and young adult books. By Sally Odgers By Request – visit her new project at her website and have your say.