Published: 4th February 2019
Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia
Format: Hardback Picture Book (purchased)
The powerful story of a family who lose their home in a bushfire and their journey of recovery.
Remembering Black Saturday
There is a fire coming, and we need to move quickly. Mum and Dad start packing bags, grabbing woollen blankets, the first-aid kit, torches, and then the photo albums. Dad puts Ruby on her lead and ties her up near the back door. My chest feels hollow, like a birdcage.
Atmospheric and intensely moving, this is the story of a family experiencing a bushfire, its devastating aftermath, and the long process of healing and rebuilding.
It’s not often that a picture book makes you cry, but The House On The Mountain did just that.
The House On The Mountain is a dark, and harrowing picture book that seeks to educate, inspire and give hope to those who read it. It follows the story of an unnamed family as they deal with the heat wave that rocked Victoria, Australia, throughout the weekend of the 7th February 2009 and the catastrophic firestorm that swept through dozens of towns killing 173 people and leaving many more injured and homeless.
What’s most unique about this story however, is that Ella Holcombe has gone to great lengths to make sure that this particular book about Black Saturday is more than just another recounting of the tragic events of 7th February. Rather it comes full circle, starting the day before the firestorm, continuing on with the families’ narrow escape through the immediate and present fire front , only to then focus more prominently on the aftermath and coming to terms with the loss of the family homes and environment.
The House On The Mountain may be a picture book for children aged 7-11 years (and above!), but there is nothing gentle here except perhaps Ella Holcombe’s narrator as she walks the reader through the worst days of her life. The narrative itself is brutally honest, with an opening that is almost deceptively sweet as the narrator and her younger twin brothers play amongst the trees and eat grapes while laying on the kitchen floor. What follows however is the heartbreaking tale of a family amidst a dangerous situation, one where one wrong turn could cost them their lives as the fire engulfs the world around them.
Ella Holcombe’s text is gentle in approach, but it packs an emotional punch as it depicts the horror of the situation, and what it truly means to have lost one’s home and community through circumstances such as these. By not solely focusing on the fire front, but rather how the family rebuilds, and deals with the missing teachers and students who never return to school is heartbreaking, but honest and raw in picture book form. It gives the reader an insight into what is often forgotten about tragedies such as these – that the world goes on, and when the immediate danger is gone and the media have packed up and long gone home, they have to pick up the broken pieces of their life and try and put it back together again within their ‘new reality’. The reality of the situation is that school and work still waits, just with new challenges as one’s peers try and cope with what they have witnessed in the only ways they can and with added stress of counselling and formal interviews with official bodies.
David Cox’s illustrations are staggering in this book. I wasn’t initially a fan of the illustration style at the very beginning with the comic style boxed images, but once the fire took over the story (as a character in of itself), Cox’s illustrations blew me away. There are no words to truly describe the layers of emotion, place, family and fear that his illustrations evoke alongside Holcombe’s words. Especially, when greeted with the reality of the school and counselling where Holcombe is careful with her words and Cox’s illustrations do the talking.
One of the things that really stood out for me within the narrative was the way Holcombe has expertly crafted both the firestorm itself and the family home as characters within the story. While neither are explicitly stated, the mourning and longing for the family home is a strong psychological and emotional response to bushfires that not many people truly understand. So while positioning and framing it’s place within the narrator’s memory and feelings, Holcomb has done a superb job at highlighting these reactions, while also alluding to more of her own personal loss and family.
At the very end of the book, there is a one page author’s note from Holcombe addressing the story and her reasons for writing it. The House On The Mountain is a deeply personal story because it is partially the story of her family and their experiences. Sadly, unlike the unnamed family in the narrative, Holcombe’s family were not so ‘fortunate’ to escape with only the loss of the family home and subsequent belongings. Holcombe’s parents and the beloved family pet perished within the fires that day as well, and this story is Holcombe’s way of rewriting history and giving hope to one of the darkest moments of her life. Her emotion and connection to the story, the land and the entire event is evident on every page and I both commend and applaud her for not only sharing her story, both fictional and real, but for crafting a beautiful and inspiring picture book that tackles many of the issues society would rather not think about. What is left behind is a remarkable story that is breathtaking and bitter-sweet, while also being a fantastic learning tool and discussion piece for future generations.
Together Ella Holcombe and David Cox have created a picture book that transcends all other non-fiction picture books for older children that I have read to date. It’s beautiful, but a beastly master piece that I feel belongs in every Australian’s personal home library. For not only is The House On The Mountain a reminder of what brushfires are capable of and the day that changed Australia, but its also a great teaching and talking point to get children and adults alike discussing plans, and the reality of what happens during and after a fire and tragedy such as this one.
It’s no secret that I love reading aftermath books. The strength of the human psyche and the way individuals deal with situations beyond their control both fascinates and astounds me.The House On The Mountain is a reminder that while we talk about the Black Saturday firestorm with the ten year anniversary earlier this week, there are whole communities out there who not only lived through the horror of that day, but are still living and making their way through the aftermath of it still to this day.