Jasper Jones – Craig Silvey
I decided to do this book for genre monthly as it has caused some controversy at a local school where it has been book-listed as a Year 10 text replacing Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Whether the issue is the content or that it has replaced the much loved (and book-listed forever) Mockingbird depends on who you talk to. Like all novels it depends on what the reader brings to the novel and as far as a class text goes, how it is approached and what is used in conjunction with it.
It is interesting that with so much intertexuality (references to Twain, Harper Lee and other Southern Writers) built into Jasper Jones that I brought my own comparison, in particular, Archie Weller’s short story Herbie. Herbie like Jasper Jones is set in a small town in country WA and Herbie’s family is only one of two aboriginal families in the town just as Jasper is the only indigenous kid in Corrigan (which coincidently is the name of the other aboriginal family in Herbie). Both Herbie and Jasper are the scape goats of their town but thankfully (spoiler) Jasper does not suffer the same fate as Herbie. I also made comparisons with the plight of Raymond in James Moloney’s Dougy and the inherent racism in Phillip Gwynne’s Deadly Unna. Thus, whilst Jasper Jones could be enjoyed as a “stand alone” novel it has a lot more meaning when read with other stories about prejudice, whether they are the stories of the Southern states of the U.S. or ones about indigenous Australians.
The narrator of Jasper Jones is a teen boy called Charlie Bucktin and whilst first person allows us as readers to see and feel more, his narration and insight is unlike any other young teen and seems somewhat forced and misplaced. In contrast, his conversations with his mate Jeffrey are sufficiently puerile (and for some offensive) that they seem quite authentic. Some reviewer’s such as Rebecca Stafford in The Age, see this puerility as a flaw but I wonder whether she has spent days listening to 13 year old male conversations. Either way, if you can suspend your disbelief, Charlie and his friends are quite likeable.
The events of the novel centre on Jasper and Charlie investigating the death of Jasper’s friend Laura Wishart. In helping Jasper, Charlie is confronted with a disturbing view of his town and its inhabitants and is not only forced into righting wrongs but challenged by the demons within his own family. There are some “unspeakable” issues brought up in Laura Wishart story line but these are handled sensitively and are not explicit. So much so, that I have had a Year 6 student read the novel (not on my recommendation) and I wonder whether he even realise what was happening.
Final verdict. Whilst I will remember this novel (despite reading it on my iPad), can understand why it has won awards and can appreciate its inclusion in school book-lists, I doubt it is worthy of the tag “an Australian To Kill a Mockingbird”. But then, what is? However, its quirkiness and ability to address injustice does make it a worthy inclusion in the wannabe novels in the ‘bunyip of Australian Literature … The Great Australian novel’ (see previous blog).