I was fourteen,
and the flood swept
used tyres, and
Harry was named after Harry Houdini, the great escape artist, which is perhaps why he’s so good at wriggling out of trouble. Like the time that Johnny Barlow wants to flatten him for throwing stones at his brother’s window. Harry doesn’t lie, but Johnny still leaves him alone.
Life for Harry isn’t all about escapes, however. His mother died when he was seven, leaving his Dad to bring up Harry and his younger brother. Harry also mourns the loss of his friend, Linda, who was swept away in a flood. Even apart from these deaths, small-town life can be difficult. There are always gossips, always hardships. Harry seems to be biding his time till he can leave.
Still, there are good things, too. Eating chunks of watermelon in the backyard after school, chasing clouds of butterflies in Cowper’s Paddock and swimming in Pearce Swamp.
By the River is a story of undercurrents and of survival. More simply, it is a tale of growing up in the 1960s. Steven Herrick writes in verse, which means he has to work to make every word, every line, powerful. He achieves this with aplomb. Whilst issues of death and intolerance are at the centre of the book, it is not a depressing read – being instead tender and subtle. Harry yearns for freedom, sensing he will find it by leaving town, yet as the novel progresses he comes to a greater understanding of the town and its people. This doesn’t mean that Harry won’t leave, but perhaps that when he does he won’t be running away.
By the River is a coming of age story, with Harry’s growth creeping up on the reader. Teen readers will enjoy the form and the story.
By the River, by Steven Herrick
Allen & Unwin, 2004