Gary Lonesborough, The Boy from the Mish, HarperCollins Publishers, February 2021, 288m pp., RRP $19.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781760525880
This story delves into the emotional turmoil thrust upon adolescents as they navigate issues of identity, sexuality, and relationships. The layering of racial and generational disadvantage adds to the richness of meaning and experience in a setting that has been sorely underrepresented in popular culture.
It’s a hot summer on the ‘Mish’. For seventeen-year-old Jackson that means trekking to the camping ground by the lake to hang out with the tourists, a few beers at backyard parties and a flood of family from the city. But this summer is a little different because when Aunty Pam shows up with a carload of Jackson’s kid cousins, Tomas, a strange boy from the city is among them. Tomas has spent some time in ‘juvie’ and is working on a project to rehabilitate and keep his troubled past at bay. For Jackson, this mysterious stranger unearths a secret that he thought was buried and forgotten.
In this must-read YA novel, the characters are real and relatable and their development is genuine and hard won. This is best seen in the protagonist, Jackson who begins by questioning himself as a man, believing himself to be ‘pathetic’ or ‘broken’ when he fails to be physically intimate with his girlfriend. Jackson is angry at the racism he faces from some of the local ‘white fellas’ and targeting from the police. He finds it difficult to articulate these emotions and a lot of the internal dialogue in the beginning of the story leaves the reader yearning for Jackson to develop his confidence and his voice. With the unconditional love and support Jackson receives from his mum, his Uncle Charlie, the elders of the Mish and his mates, Jackson comes to find his voice, accept, and love who he is and reach out to others around him.
The themes of racism, homophobia, alcoholism, and generational disadvantage are interwoven naturally within the story. These are depicted as life as norm for the families on the Mish. Derogatory terms like ‘abo’ are thrown around by the ‘rednecks’ from the town and are the catalyst for Jackson to be involved in a fight, which results in an assault charge. Flippant jibes about the gay boy from school sit uncomfortably with Jackson who remains silent. Beer is enjoyed at every party and offered at every social gathering with no consideration to the legal age limit, it is a natural part of the community on the Mish. Regular reminders that no ‘black fellas’ ever finished high school in Jackson’s mum’s time are treated as annoying lectures from mother to teenage son, yet are indicative of the generational lack of access to education.
The harsh reality of these themes works beautifully with the ideas of spirituality, connection, and hope. Jackson is surrounded by people who love him, but he feels as if he doesn’t belong. He alludes to an unknown world that exists outside of the Mish, a world where he may feel connected. Yet, the connection he yearns for is there all along, in his family, his Mum and Aunty Pam who paint the story of their country, a story of the stolen generation and the link to culture that can never be broken; in the secret men’s meetings by the lake where the boys get together and yarn and learn that shame has no place among them; in his friends who ‘have his back’ no matter what; and in his boyfriend Tomas, who makes him feel safe and writes about pride, power and strength in indigenous people. These ideas thread through the story and take the reader on a journey with Jackson, a journey of discovery, identity, hope and acceptance.
I highly recommend this novel to readers 17+. Lonesborough’s writing style is easy to read and will quickly engage the audience. It is a story that should have been written many years ago and one I hope will be widely read.
Reviewed by Katie Mineeff