One of the things I love about working at an after school tutoring centre, is how it helps to broaden my reading. My year 12 students come from a variety of different schools, are taking different courses and studying different texts. The Simple Gift by Steven Herrick is one of the prescribed texts for the standard HSC course, in the area of study - belonging.
Genre: Fiction, YA, Australian, Poetry
This novel is about Billy, who leaves home aboard a freight train heading interstate. Billy finds himself in Bendarat, living in a disused train carriage, where he meets a homeless man called Old Bill. Old Bill drinks away his past while Billy tries to find a future. The other main character is Caitlin, a girl Billy meets in Bendarat. All three characters are searching for something to give their lives substance.
I was surprised how much I enjoyed this novel. I was a little skeptical when I first picked it up as this novel is written in verse. Yep, that's right... a novel written entirely in verse. Although, being a young adult novel it is written in a way that is easily accessible, which made for a very quick read. I think I knocked this book over in about an hour. That's not to say it wasn't well written. This book was a pleasure to read.
"I tried to read between the lines, holding someone's past in my dirty hands"
The thing I enjoyed most about this book was the characters. Billy runs away from an abusive father and ends up in Bendarat. Little does he realise, he is about to form two of the most important relationships of his life. The first one is with an old hobo who is also named Bill. Billy nicknames him, Old Bill.
Old Bill is also running from his past.... from an accident that destroyed his family. He lives in the train carriage next to Billy and they soon form a friendship. Billy's kindness and generosity touch Old Bill and help him put his life back together. This novel shows how the simple gift of kindness and friendship are the most important things you can give to a person... it can be life changing.
"and he tells me
about his Jessie
and his wife
and the house he visits
when too much drink
has made him forget
and how he's afraid to forget
because without his ghosts
he's afraid he'll have nothing to live for.
And at that moment I know
I am listening to
the saddest man in the world."
- Steven Herrick, p.104-105
The second character that Billy comes into contact with is Caitlin. Caitlin comes from a wealthy household and has everything she could ever want in life. Every material thing that is. The one thing she is lacking is internal and she is not sure what it is or how to find it.
Caitlin was an endearing character. She wasn't the typical, spoilt little rich girl. She knew there was more to life, she just didn't know how to find it... until Billy came along and she found herself drawn to the strange, homeless boy. They soon form a friendship which blossoms into a romance and Caitlin realises there is so much more to life, and herself, than she was aware of.
The story of Old Bill in this novel was very sad. It breaks my heart to think of all the homeless people out there and how one event in a persons life, can throw everything off course and destroy a person inside and out. Life is so unpredictable and we should always appreciate what we have at every moment, because we don't know when it will all be taken away.
Billy was also endearing. Even thought he was in a dire situation with little money or food, he still did his best to help another human being in need. More people in life need to be like Billy. The world would be a much nicer place, if they were.
All in all, this was a fantastic young adult novel. The characters, relationships, places, events and ideas in this book can all be linked closely to the concept of belonging which makes for a great text to use in this area of study. I am looking forward to teaching it this term, and will most definitely use it myself in the classroom.