Like a Love Affair: Ivan Southall—Fellowship Presentation
By Angharad Lodwick
I remember reading a book in the late 1990s when I was in about grade six. All I could remember was that it was about a group of children who get stranded in a cave after some kind of natural disaster. I couldn’t remember much else about the book. Not the title, the author or any of the characters. However, something about it stuck with me and about a year ago I found myself posting on an online messageboard (a Reddit page called /r/whatsthatbook) to try and find out what the book was called. It turns out it was Hill’s End by Ivan Southall, an Australian young adult author.
When I saw that Dr Gabrielle Carey, one of the two authors behind arguably Australia’s most famous young adult book Puberty Blues, was giving a talk on the research she was doing about Ivan Southall, and given the start of the LoveOzYA movement I knew I simply had to go.
Due to a bus timetable mishap, I had to sneak in a little late, and Dr Carey had already begun. The main focus of her research is a collection of letters that children wrote to Southall about his books, which are now kept in the National Library. When I finally arrived she had just begun to go through them.
Southall was at peak popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, and the letters from children poured in; many of them praising the very same book I had read. The children were even the same age as I had been when I read Hill’s End, mostly 11 or 12. One child wrote that they had read Southall’s book six times. One boy said that he never read a book twice, and this he had read thrice!
As part of her research, Dr Carey tracked down many of the people who had written the letters and who were now grown up. She said many of the letters gave clues about what kind of jobs the children would have as adults. One man, who had written enthusiastically about a volcano in his home town, had stayed in that town and grown up to become an environmental scientist.
Similar to me, one thing all the adults had in common when Dr Carey spoke with them was remembering the experience and the intensity of his book. For many of the letter writers, the meeting with Dr Carey was an emotional experience with two women bursting into tears. Dr Carey described it as a felt memory. An imprinted memory.
So what was it that made Southall’s books so memorable? One thing his stories tended to all have in common was the theme of unconventional masculinity. His protagonists tended to be skinny young boys who, when struck by disaster, are forced to become men. Southall tests his male characters to the limit of their endurance, and author John Marsden praised him for his “psychological awareness”. He introduces children to the idea that their greatest achievements and moments belong inside, and his stories focus on the inner struggle of boys who are sensitive and intelligent.
Dr Carey drew parallels between the exploration of masculinity in Southall’s books and the author’s own painful struggles with Australian masculinity. Dr Carey described him as a “gentle soul in a world full of boofy blokes”. Where most people eventually stop struggling with their identity, Dr Carey said that it seemed like Southall never did, but perhaps nowadays, in a society with more flexible gender roles, he would have found “a way to fit in with hipsters”.
She explained that he had always had feelings of inferiority, and after a decade of fame, his work had faded into obscurity. One of his fans wrote an article about this lack of recognition, and Southall wrote a letter back to him thanking him.
When the talk came to a close, there was an opportunity to ask questions and I put my hand up to ask whether Dr Carey thought that Southall’s books would ever have a resurgence, particularly given the natural disaster themes that are gaining popularity in contemporary young adult fiction and a growing social interest in the environment. Dr Carey thought that they wouldn’t because they are very much a product of their times. She highlighted the importance of Southall’s works to Australian literature, and how they had paved the way for other authors like John Marsden.
However, then something incredible happened. A 12 year old kid stood up and said that Dr Carey was wrong – he had read one of Southall’s books and he’d liked it. The rest of us were stunned. I had thought that I was the youngest there in a room full of baby boomers, and Dr Carey was surprised that even I had read one of Southall’s books.
It turns out the young man’s mother had picked up a copy of one of Southall’s books which had recently been republished in a new edition.
It was a great opportunity to see some anthropology in action, and Dr Carey asked the young man whether he would ever write a letter to an author. He said yes, but probably via email.
The National Library of Australia has an incredibly valuable role in preserving records like these letters, but with more and more people communicating digitally preserving these kinds of records presents a big challenge for the future. A challenge, which I am certain, the Library is going to meet head on.