Harper Flute and her family live on dry, scrubby grasslands in Australia. Her father never meant to be a farmer, but he took the land the government offered him after World War I, and now he scrapes a living from it by trapping rabbits and selling their pelts. One child after another has stretched the family resources, and now a new baby, Caffy, displaces Tin as the youngest. Tin (James Augustin Barnaby Flute), just four years old, takes a look at his home, at a bed and a table and a breast that have no room for five growing children. His response is to dig. He has a natural talent for it, a love for the earth, and he carves a space for himself there, a kingdom where no one else can go.
This is the beginning of Sonya Hartnett’s Thursday’s Child (a reference to Tin, who has far to go.) As the book proceeds through the Great Depression, which brings poverty, hunger, alcoholism, and sometimes violence to Harper and her family, Tin continues as part of the family, yet always separate. His tunnels through the earth are unknowable, a separate place, but when Caffy falls down an old wellshaft, it’s Tin they call for help, and he comes. He’s nearly a feral child by then, naked, with white skin and huge eyes adapted to the dark, but he comes to Harper’s voice. When worse things happen to the family, he comes, too, but his reactions are even less predictable.
Tin’s uncanny and wild nature — a kind of Lost Boy, if the Lost Boys had no desire for bedtime stories from Wendy — is in counterpoint to the grim struggle for civilized survival aboveground. These kinds of stories are very hard for me to read, when children go hungry or cold, but Harper’s voice takes this story beyond anything maudlin, sentimental, or even merely sad. It’s a coming-of-age story that perfectly strikes the balance between those things children take for granted about their lives, such as the amount of room in the house or what they usually have to eat, and the slow understanding of family secrets and adult knowledge that comes with age and maturity. Over the course of the novel, Harper gradually grows to know her father, her mother, her older sister and brother, and even Tin, better than any child could. While Tin stays the same, animal-like (or child-like), Harper grows up.
A few months ago, I read Hartnett’s novel Surrender. Both that novel and this one are billed as young adult novels, but they are both so rich, so complex, so layered and intense in feeling and characterization, so innovative in language, that if I’d picked one of them up without knowing it was marketed as YA, I never would have guessed it. These are wonderful novels for any adult — dark, and veering into dark territory, but satisfying, too, in the way that really good books always are.