Tomorrow, When the War Began (by John Marsden) ISBN 0-419-82910-0
This young adult ("YA') novel of adventure, romance and survival is a modern classic. The setting is in rural Australia, with lush and descriptive backdrops. The vision Marsden paints of Australia is wondrous and pictorial. A group of unsupervised teens set off on a high adventure camping expedition, alone for a week in the wilderness. (Yes, my eyebrows rose on that one, too.) Upon returning from the holiday they find their homes empty, pets and livestock dying or dead and communications down. Most of the town has been captured and is being detained in a make-shift camp. Sounds like a facsimile of the film, Red Dawn, Aussie style, but not quite.
This is a coming of age novel with all of the expectations of that phrase. It is a survival story of teens that are jerked from the normalcy of a comfortable home and high-school life to living and surviving in an occupied country. They are forced to evade the occupiers, provide food, shelter and security for themselves. Romance blooms while sorting through life changing decisions. This book will definitely open a YA mind to “What if’s”. The young reader is positioned to reflect, “What would I have done?” Throughout the book there is a growing maturity in discussions as well as logical choices and survival skills. The lessons of loyalty and family bonds are presented in a non-sermonizing manner.
Overall, Marsden has the depiction of the average seventeen-year-old spot on. The language and interaction is genuine. The early banter is a little bawdy at times although not explicit. Profanity is not an issue. I know the preoccupation with infatuations in this age group. (Contrary to the opinions of my children, I was not cloned in a tube and emerged as a mid-life adult.) Even so, I felt I was chin deep in teenage, moon-eyed angst. Early in the story romantic fantasies abound. However, there is a fruition of a developing perspective leading the YA to a more mature view. This is a clever device, making the YA reader relate with the YA characters as they evolve. As an adult reader I found glimpse into the developing YA psyche interesting.
John Marsden is an award winning author, published in over nine languages and has written over 40 books. Being an educator he has the ‘voice’ of the young adult characters to perfection. Tomorrow is the first of a series of seven YA books following Ellie and her friends. This saga remains one of the most popular YA reads today, recommended for middle school and older. The original publication was 1993 by Pan MacMillan. I am reviewing the First Point paperback edition, a Scholastic book, published in 2006.
Two caveats about this book. I feel several of the sexually oriented topics are inappropriate for a middle school age child. As I implied in the first paragraph, I am not sure what you think about an entire week of unchaperoned, hormonal teenagers in the wilderness, but in my home that’s not an option. There are no actual depictions of sexual acts, but a lot of heavy petting and one dream scene of nude fondling. In particular, sharing sleeping arrangements and co-ed naptime are presented as to sound customary. Later in the book (page 237) is a discussion of virginity. Admittedly, my impression is that these are older, more experienced teens with graduation around the corner. Compared to the books, movies, music popular today, Tomorrow is restrained. But for a fourteen year old, I prefer to not present the notion that snuggling together in a tent alone overnight is banal and virginity optional. It is not okay to play with fire. Yes, I know. They are thinking about it. But, you don’t have to cultivate the thoughts and water them with assurances that this type of careless behavior is the norm. Teens under fifteen or less mature teens do not need that meme advocated.
Marsden has sold more than 3 million books because he writes books that the kids want to read. I can see some validity in that concept, but I wonder if he would feel the same casual regard for exposing young minds to sexual elements if he were a parent.
My other dissent is the author’s apparent slant to the left in discussions justifying the actions of the invaders. Of course, the teens are concerned, even oppressed with worry for family and friends. They do not condone the occupiers’ actions; however, at least a faction does understand why the unnamed enemy has occupied their land. Paraphrasing here: ‘We have-they do not-therefore it is our fault. No wonder we were invaded’. Well, now, that explains everything.
Tomorrow, When the War Began is an international bestseller. Rave reviews universally laud this book. Scholastic consortiums extol Marsden. This book (and series) is included as reading list in schools around the world. I recommend Tomorrow noting the two caveats listed above. This book should stay on the shelf until the adolescent child reaches a strong sense of self and has the ability to critically discern and then evaluate the viewpoints presented within the writing. Given the diversity of beliefs and values among parents, you may disagree with my view. Obviously, thousands of middle-school libraries do. My perspectives reflect my stance as conservative Christian. The novel does exhibit significant moral evolution albeit through stuttering teen reasoning. A more mature YA with a strong sense of identity could deal with the topics handily and benefit from the read. I would not put this book into the hands of an eighth-grader.