What happens to a 12-year-old boy who hates his school and who is lodged with the latest in a series of unsatisfactory foster parents? The answer is – run away from both. Skip becomes a street urchin.
So far so realistic: but Millard now slips her characters into a world that is subtly but decisively alien. Skip meets a war veteran named Billy: we are not told which war. A pseudo-paternal relationship springs up between Skip and Billy. Skip is a gifted painter, whom Billy encourages to study art history in the books of a handy library.
Somehow this world comes under aerial bombardment. Billy, Skip and an orphaned six year old named Max Montgomery end up living in the ruins of the bombed library. Their next residence is an abandoned funfair, which has more than a passing resemblance to Luna Park in Melbourne, the capital of Millard’s home state. There they meet a 15-year-old unmarried mother Tia and her child, whom they name Sixpence.
This dramatic narrative serves to illustrate a number of themes including the importance of family ties, the futility of war, the psychological trauma of conflict, and the powerful driving force of dire necessity. The survivors steal their food and Tia prostitutes herself to feed her child. Millard’s intent is clearly to emphasise how close to the surface of civilized life we find the primeval instincts necessary to survive, and how swiftly issues about survival and humanity are linked when society begins to feel itself menaced.
Glenda Millard’s narrative technique is tight and meticulous, reminding this reviewer of her fellow-Australian Maurice Gleitzman’s style in the trilogy Once, Then and Now. She recounts momentous changes through the eyes of an impressionable child, noting the apparently tiny details that mark epochal events. By coincidence, but significantly, this review was written on the anniversary of Victory in Europe Day.