When the War Began
Book 1 in "The Tomorrow Series" by John
the plot of this novel
Please don't read on if this concerns you
"Tomorrow, When the War Began" could have very
easily been a chest thumping, racist, jingoistic diatribe, supporting
the worst paranoid fantasies of Australia's far Right. A sort of
Autralian novelised version of the very B-grade US 1984 teen flick,"Red
But it is not.
The author has gone to a lot of trouble to make sure it isn't,
for that isn't what "Tomorrow, When The War Began"
is about. This isn't a novel about a war, it is a novel about how
eight very ordinary teenagers respond to a war.
Sure, there is heaps of action. It is after all an adventure story,
told with verve, pace and suspense. It is very well written and
in such a style as to be accessible to the young reader without
talking down to the older. But there are many such novels and while
this is part of why it works so well, there is more to it than that.
Fundamentally it is a character study, delving into the shock and
stress of war, looking at the mess it makes of people's minds, looking
at how people respond. John Marsden's greatest gift is in characterisation,
particularly of teenage characters. In this novel he creates eight
teenagers, breathes life into them, puts them in a situation of
extreme stress and then writes down what happens. "Tomorrow,
When the War Began" and its sequels is that record.
For me at least it is this second layer that is by far the most
There are four things that set this novel apart:
The powerful characterisation: The characters in
this novel could be anyone of us, any group of young people in
any western leaning country. They are people you can relate to.
They start out as fairly stereotypical examples of youth, but
they are drawn with a great deal of sympathy and care by the author.
They are very human, very believable, very ordinary. Then their
lives are smashed apart and they are forced to respond, to change,
to grow and to adapt. By the end of this novel most of the stereotypes
have been reversed and the characters have come a long way from
how they started out – yet each is still recognisable. All
through the novel you are immersed in the characters feelings,
their uncertainty, their fears, their hopes, the drama of what
they are experiencing Once again this is done in such a way you
can suspend disbelief and go with the flow. The characterisation
is so well done that Ellie, Robyn, Fi, Homer, Chris, Corrie, Kevin
and Lee can become real for the reader, and you can relate to
them as you would real people. They draw you in.
- The situation: The situation is one of absolute desperation,
it is also believable – not logically – but emotionally.
Maybe it would be better to say it is imaginable – the invasion
of your country – the destruction of all you hold dear –
the devastation of your life, of you hopes, of your dream. There
is a passage in “The
Dead of the Night” that covers what has happened
and its emotional impact very well indeed. After all this sort
of thing has happened several times recently – invasion
of a country by an oppressive and aggressive enemy - Bosnia, Croatia,
Chechnya good examples - why not to us or to any other country?
(well there are good reasons
why not to Australia, but that does not matter at the level
of an emotional reaction to the situation). “There but for
the grace of god, go I …”. It makes you think.
- The large areas left to the reader's imagination: Written strictly
from the point of view of Ellie, the narrator, and covering nothing she does not
know personally, "Tomorrow" leaves great areas just sketched
in for the reader to flesh out in their imagination; from what the other characters
are really feeling to more distent events. The reader becomes a participant in
the story, creating their own image of what is going on around and with the characters.
- The technical excellence of the writing: John Marsden
is an excellent writer and puts together a ripping yarn, using
a well crafted mix of humour, affection, tension, suspense, action,
caring and fear. I did find the first 50 or so pages a bit slow,
but they built the characterisation, and from Ellie thinking “The
dogs were dead” till the end of the novel, the pace
“Tomorrow, When The War Began” is a record
written by Ellie, the teenage daughter of sheep and cattle farmers,
and it opens with her reasons for writing. I could paraphrase but
I think it is best in her own words: “I know writing it
down is important to us. That’s why we all got so excited
when Robyn suggested it. It’s terribly, terribly important.
Recording what we’ve done, in words, on paper, it’s
got to be our way of telling ourselves that we mean something, that
we matter. That the things we’ve done have made a difference.
I don’t know how big a difference, but a difference. Writing
it down means we might be remembered. And by god that matters to
us. None of us wants to end up as a pile of dead white bones, unnoticed,
unknown, and worst of all, with no one knowing or appreciating the
risks we’ve run.” (p2)
Right away we see how desperate their situation will come, but
also how desperate for approval they are, especially Ellie. They
have the very human need to be appreciated, to be respected, even
if only after they are dead. Through out the whole series they act
half from a feeling of responsibility and half from a desire for
approval, for appreciation. Time and time again this need comes
back - this very human need - till the bitter end.
After that opening it is obvious this is not going to be your normal
teenage fair, but then Ellie takes us back to the beginning, to
before the war, to the start of their camping trip, seven teenagers
off for a week in the bush without adult supervision. Ellie, pushy
but nothing special; Robyn, serious; Kevin, typical rural; Lee,
introverted; Corrie, friendly; Homer, larrikin; Fi, delicate.
The trip is nicely drawn, and very necessary for later character
development, but the novel really starts to come into its own when
the group returns home to find their homes abandoned, their dogs
and stock dead, all the people, all the adults gone. With no one
to turn to they start to panic, to rush this way and that as they
try to discover what is going on. Then, as they start to work out
what has happened, to try and deny it.
Faced with the first of the great shocks that will confront them
time and again through these novels, other aspects of their personalities
start to emerge, they start to protect and support each other, they
start to grow. Those who have kept their heads (Robyn and Lee) convince
the others not to panic and then Homer, who events are rapidly transforming
from school prankster to serious leader, comes up with a plan to
confirm what they fear. Ellie, who will eventually emerge as one
of the most powerful characters in Australian fiction, essentially
just tags along, overwhelmed by what has happened. Once of the nice
things about this novel (and again, about the series) is how fallible
the characters are. As they start out, all have their problems,
they all have trouble coping and the lead swaps around as each finds
something to contribute.
As night falls they split up to investigate and Ellie’s transformation
starts. She comes to a point where she has to take a significant
risk and: “That was the first moment at which I started
to realise what true courage was. Up till then, everything had been
unreal, like a night-stalking game at a school camp. To come out
of the darkness now would be to show courage of a type I’d
never had to show before, never even known about.
A small single movement was my key to finding my spirit. There was
a tree about four steps away, in front of me and to my left, well
inside the zone of light from the Showground. I suddenly made myself
leave the darkness and go to it, in four quick light steps, a dance
that surprised me, but made me feel a little light headed and proud.
That’s it! I thought. I’ve done it! It was a dance of
courage. I felt then, and I still feel now, that I was transformed
by those four steps.” (p81)
She is indeed transformed. Within the hour, she finds the strength
to kill as pursuers corner them. The next night she kills again
to rescue the wounded Lee.
In the aftermath we see the real power of these novels. Ellie is
no Rambo and neither are her friends. They are just ordinary kids
trying to cope with a world gone mad. Ellie is shattered by what
she has done and struggles to cope, supported and helped by each
of the others, as she has helped them. It isn’t enough and
Ellie collapses internally as they retreat to their bush camp and
start to prepare for what could be a long war. As Ellie slowly recovers
mentally and Lee physically, the web of feelings and relationships
that tie the party together is wound ever tighter.
Eventually they have to face a critical decision. Hide, surrender
or fight ? Together, terrified one and all, but bound by love for
their families who are prisoners, they choose.
They will fight.
They split into two groups, one to attack, one to continue to scavenge.
The attack group, Ellie, Lee, Homer and Fi plan what to do; they
plan carefully and successfully. Homer is the undisputed leader
of this group at this point, with Robyn the leader of the scavengers.
Ellie has yet to fully come into her own. They analyse where the
enemy’s critical vulnerabilities are, Homer comes up with
a plan and they strike successfully. Very successfully.
The book looks like it is going to end with a triumph, but this
is not Hollywood and the ending is much more poignant as the attack
group returns to find the scavenger team have struck disaster. Much
more powerful than the standard “happy ending”.
Quite a lot for a novel of less than 300 pages.
another view of this novel, check out Declan Stylofone's review
and also Tim
Go to the commentary on "The
Dead of the Night"