Allison Marlow Paterson, Follow After Me, Big Sky Publishing, February 2019, 294 pp., RRP $17.50 (pbk), ISBN 9781925675580
Lizzie Windridge is going through a ‘Year 12 crisis’. She’s ditched her old friends and decided schoolwork isn’t as important as hanging out with Carly and trying to catch the eye of football star Brandon. Her family, especially her older brother Mark, aren’t happy about her choices, but tough. It’s only as Lizzie reluctantly starts to research her family history that her attitude begins to change and she realises how the sacrifices of the past have impacted her future.
One hundred years earlier, Evie has finished school and wants to be a writer, but in 1916 women didn’t write. She also wants to marry Tom but her Irish-Catholic father won’t hear of it. Then Tom and his four brothers enlist in the Great War and her dreams are torn apart when he doesn’t return.
Told mostly as a dual narrative from the perspective of rural teenagers Lizzie and Evie, Follow After Me by Allison Marlow Paterson explores the challenges, attitudes and expectations of the past and contrasts them with those faced by teenagers today. Set against the poignant backdrop of World War One, it delves deep into the experiences of both women and their families.
The historical aspects in this book are captivating and moving. They are heavily based on the author’s previous work of non-fiction Anzac Sons: The Story of Five Brothers in the War to End All Wars, which was compiled from a family collection of over 500 letters and postcards sent home from the front. The book itself features some of these letters, altered slightly to move the story along. There is no doubt that the author’s intimacy and passion for the past shine through and I was touched by the events portrayed, especially knowing they are true. The present day sections weren’t as compelling, but by the end I was cheering Lizzie on as she emerged from her ‘crisis’ of identity with new purpose and strength. I also appreciated the author’s attempts to link the present with the past using a key and an ancient scar tree on the family farm. However, I did wonder whether teenagers will connect with Lizzie’s attempts to value the past. I did — some of the scenes at the Australian War Memorial were my favourites — but as I read them, particularly the scene where Lizzie reflects on a painting, I wondered whether they would resonate with today’s teen.
This is an ambitious book that tackles many, many issues across a century of Australian rural life. The modern day sections explore shifting relationships, financial pressure, drought, female images, consent and sexual assault. While the sections set in the past feature conscription, grief, societal expectations, religious and political differences and the stark realities of war. It’s a lot to take in. Also, although the letters and scenes from the front added historical depth and educational value, they created point of view problems. Views switched too many times between too many people and not only amongst chapters, but between scenes and even mid scene. This sometimes blurred issues and ideas, and as the book progressed I felt the structure of the story buckled under all this weight.
Follow After Me is a deeply touching, ambitious novel that should appeal to older teenagers, 13+, and adults. In particular, readers who are drawn to real stories, WWI and Australian rural life will enjoy this book. Despite the female protagonists, the story captures the views and experiences of many men and should therefore be enjoyed by readers of both sexes. Finally, the contemporary thread makes the narrative accessible and appealing to teens who might otherwise find themselves reluctant to try Australian historical fiction. Follow After Me is a an authentic Australian story, told with heart.
Reviewed by Renee Mihulka