Evan McHugh, Black Sunday (My Australian Story series), Scholastic Australia, August 2016, 256pp., $16.99, (pbk), ISBN 9781743627990
Evan McHugh’s first novel is a beautifully written text that evokes the setting of Bondi in the year 1937. The main character, twelve-year-old David McCutcheon, known as “Nipper”, lives near the beach in Bondi. It is an important time for Nipper as he approaches his thirteenth birthday and must decide if he will leave school to work like his brother Jamie did the year before. He doesn’t like school, particularly his teacher, Mrs Kearsley, who seems to loathe him. Nipper’s real love is lifesaving and he hero worships the lifesavers who patrol the local beach. He cannot wait to turn fourteen when he can try for the Bronze Medallion and join the Life Saving Club and, in the long term, gain work as a paid beach inspector. He secretly practises his lifesaving skills and on Black Sunday (6th of February 1938) when hundreds of swimmers are swept out to sea at Bondi, Nipper has a chance to use his skills and prove his worth as a lifesaver even though he is still under the official age.
The tale is told in the first person as we follow Nipper’s diary entries over a twelve-month period. The diary style draws the reader into Nipper’s world and we begin to care about his family and friends who are all appealing and lovable characters. While it is a time of change for Nipper, it is also a time of transformation for Australia: the remnants of the Depression are still present in the unemployed; Hitler is on the rise in Europe; the first “reffos” are arriving from Germany and the growing rumblings of another war disturb the peace of the McCutcheon’s simple suburban life. While Nipper continues to be in awe of the lifesavers, over the year he learns of other types of heroism including his grandfather having won a medal in the last war, but refusing to talk about it; the esteem his unassuming father holds in the community; the selfless love of his mother and even Mrs Kearsley’s sad secret which she carries with quiet fortitude. The text also subtly explores issues such as equality for women, the treatment of refugees, the indigenous, and the mentally ill.
Structured around historical events, Black Sunday is a coming-of-age tale that strikingly evokes a young, self-assured Australia between the wars and a sun-drenched beach culture. It is highly recommended for the lower secondary age group who, through this enjoyable novel, will be exposed to some palatable Australian history and will also appreciate Nipper’s struggle to establish his own identity while coming to terms with an increasingly complex world.
Reviewed by John Nolan