This fab book takes us to the heart of Oz for a blast of life in the out back with a boy called Dan, and deals with grief and loss as well as the trials of young Liz, the Pom who has come to help out on the farm.
Sorry if that opening sounded a little stilted, but I was setting myself the challenge I woke up to on Radio 4 this morning - of summarising a book in a single sentence, using words of only one syllable. OK, so I cheated a bit by splitting 'outback' into two words - but other than that I think I've covered the essentials.
Dan (or rather Danny) is thirteen and lives on a cattle station near Alice Springs (actually 200 miles away, but it's the nearest town of any size...) with his parents and two sisters, one of whom, Sissy, aged fourteen, is pregnant. A tragedy hangs over the family: about a year ago Danny's older brother Jonny died in a terrible accident. Danny can't find anyone who wants to talk about Jonny. The family avoid mentioning him, while struggling on as best they can, trying to make ends meet and looking after their cattle on the drought-stricken land.
'The Pommie' arrives - Liz from England, who Danny's father says speaks like the Queen and is far too weak and skinny to do anything useful around the place. She can't even, it seems, make breakfast for the family without nearly burning the house down. And when she tries to drive one of the utes it's another near-disaster. In Danny's opinion she should be sent straight back to where she came from. But the Pommie is tougher than she looks and before long she has grasped the principles of life on the cattle station and is pulling her weight. Not only that, but she asks Danny some questions about Jonny, his dead brother, and opens up the way for him to begin to talk about his loss.
There is plenty more going on. Danny is given an orphaned young camel to rear - the boisterous Buzz, who gives Danny some worrying moments but also provides him with a job that's all his own. Danny is helping with the cattle muster (round-up) for the first time this year, and is determined to make a good job of things and to honour the memory of his brother.
We also learn about the relationships between Danny's family, the neighbouring white farmers and the aboriginals who live nearby. And there's a challenge for Danny's dad when he discovers the identity of the father of Sissy's baby.
This is a coming-of-age novel with a difference. From page one the reader is plunged into what for me was the wholly unfamiliar world of life on an Australian cattle station. But Danny's voice and personality quickly make us feel at home there. He has a wonderful way with words and his descriptions had me laughing out loud at times. Yet there's real feeling too - a boy who has lost his brother and feels unable to talk about it with anyone else. And the young woman Liz (who I'm guessing from the Acknowledgements may be based just a little on the author's own experiences in Australia). Seen through Danny's eyes, she makes ridiculous and hilarious mistakes, but she engages our sympathy from the start and it's impossible not to see the story from her perspective.
To my surprise, the 'Everybody Jam' of the title turns out to be a noun phrase, not a command. You'll have to read the book to find out what it means.
Danny is a tough lad with a heart, and his story made me both laugh and cry. This is a book for age 12+, I'd say, and should appeal to both boys and girls. And grown-ups...
I'm hoping to see more from Ali Lewis.
Title: Everybody Jam
Author: Ali Lewis
Publisher: Andersen Press
Publication Date: 2011
ISBN: 978 1 84939 248 8
*** Unsuitable for younger readers***
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