This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.
The Min Min by Mavis Thorpe Clark
(1966, Lansdowne Press)
The Min Min has a special place in my family. When I was a child, it was a treasured book of my parents (my father, I think) and it was regarded as both an excellent book and a possession to look after. Obviously, there was no chance of taking off with this one, so when I saw it in an op shop, years later, I grabbed a copy for myself. But I don’t think I read it then – in fact I can’t remember reading it since I was a child.
The Min Min is – on the surface – the story of Sylvie Edwards, the slightly awkward, eldest daughter of an often drunk and abusive railway fettler and his wife – who we rarely see through the course of the book. But before you get far in the book, you realise it’s a bigger story than that – it’s the story of Reg, Sylvie’s troublesome eleven year old brother, of the young and eager schoolteacher determined to ‘make a difference’, of Sylvie and Reg’s father, and of all the people who either chose or are forced through circumstance to live in an incredibly isolated part of Australia.
After Reg and the other children of the siding (a collection of 10 houses and a school where the fettler’s families live) destroy the school, (including the teacher’s personal belongings), Sylvie and Reg are filled with fear. Reg is scared that he’ll be sent away to reform school, after having many warnings about previous misdeeds. Sylvie is scared of a future, with a teacher who refuses to teach her any longer, and a father who has asserted his right to hit her as long as she lives in his house. The pair sneak away from their home, following first the railway tracks, and then a bush track to the sympathetic Tucker family – a family who live a life completely foreign to the pair. The Tuckers give Sylvie and Reg a glimpse of something different and the possibility of a future, something which has always been untouchable and out of reach – like the mysterious min min lights which they see from time to time.
At the beginning, this book is just bleak. The landscape around the siding is smooth and unchanging, with the houses the only shapes in their landscape. The families of the siding have developed a gang like community, where the men are the ‘bosses’, women are supposed to be mothers (or are treated with suspicion) and the boys are relied on to cause mischief – to ‘stick it’ to authority and bring some excitement to the town. No one is particularly interested in education or learning, the men have come to the siding ” . . . because life was sour or dangerous, and it was as good a place as any.” Clive Scott, the young teacher who requested the position, doesn’t belong there – it’s a place for people who feel they have no where else to go.
Things begin to change when Sylvie and Reg turn up at the Tuckers’ place. The Tuckers chose to live in an isolated place (in fact, they live within the borders of Woomera, in a house complete with an air raid shelter), but insist on maintaining aspects of their previous city life – education for the children, reading at night, a set of strict rules and guidelines. Mrs Tucker – who had previously been kind to Sylvie – shows her a world beyond the siding, a world where she can create things with her own hands. (Mr Scott had already started this process of showing her a different world, but his world seemed unattainable to her, while Mrs Tucker’s was very possible)
Meanwhile Mr Tucker and their three sons show a completely different definition of masculinity to Reg. At the siding masculinity is defined by mischief and beer. The Tucker boys shoot, fix things and ride horses – but they do it under the rules and guidelines set out by their parents. The boys wash and wipe dishes, are expected to work hard at their school work and respect learning, and spend their evenings reading. Although he scoffs at them at first, Reg finds himself admiring them more and more.
There’s so many themes I could discuss further with this book – the love of land, the importance of rain and water, the irony of the ‘safe’ family living in an unsafe area, how our families and experiences shape who we are – it’s remarkably deep, although very few things actually happen. The roles of men and women are quite structured, as expected for a book written in the 1960s, but both men and women are written as people, even if their roles are more ‘defined’. There’s definitely some casual racism, though there’s also a sense that the author respects the Indigenous people she met on her journeys through the area, and the Aboriginal characters are much better written than some other books from the same era.
I’m really glad I read this book again as an adult – a well written book like this often has different sympathies as you grow older. The teacher was a much more vivid character to me this time, as were some of the other adults in the book. This probably wouldn’t be a ‘jump off the shelf book’ for young people today – it’s much quieter than many of the books aimed at the 10-14 year old readers of today – but I could definitely see it making an impact on certain children. It’s a wonderful book, which probably deserves a bit more recognition as an Australian classic than it currently gets.
- The Mavis Thorpe Clarke website has lots of extra information about the author, her books and her inspirations.
- The Children’s Book Council of Australia awarded The Min Min the best book award in 1967. Here’s a list with other winners and commended books of the decade