The latest book in the Australian Disaster Zones series, Alex is a powerful story providing multi-layered insights into a farming community suffering from a crippling drought.
In the text’s accompanying Teachers’ Notes, Rosanne Hawk (whose 2012 novel Taj and the Great Camel Trek was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards) describes her own experiences growing up in a rural community during a drought and her motivation to write a story showing the hardships and the resilience of those affected – especially the children.
It’s 2020, and despite the drought, thirteen year old Alex loves living on Spring Park, his family’s property in the Flinders Ranges. He knows he has more independence than the town kids, riding his horse – or driving the family ute – for hours at a time, checking fences and hand-feeding the sheep, accompanied only by his kelpie.
But although farm life suits him well, Alex is growing increasingly concerned about his Dad, who has been suffering from major depression for the past twelve months. And as his Dad’s illness continues, the bulk of the farm work falls to Alex, whose Mum has to work at the local pub to make ends meet.
When the drought forces wild dogs onto his property, Alex doesn’t know who to turn to. But his new classmate and neighbour, Bonny, learns what is happening and suggests Alex borrow some of her family’s camels, explaining that camels protect sheep and help improve the land by eating introduced weeds. Alex shares Bonny’s enthusiasm for sustainable farming but knows that camels will be a hard sell to his parents, who follow the mainstream community’s view that they are nothing more than a pest.
While it occasionally feels like the story slips from Alex’s perspective into something closer to narrative non-fiction in the lengthy descriptions of farming life and new sustainability practices, the details are fascinating and give the text richness and depth.
With themes of sustainability, resilience, and mental health, Alex is an eye-opening read about growing up on a property and the way drought impacts every member of the community. It treats its heavy topics with nuance and sensitivity, and would make an excellent classroom read for children eleven years and older.