As the film of Tomorrow When The War Began approaches, I’ve now knocked over Book 2 in the series (out of 7), so hopefully that will cover me for most of the film (though from the trailers, it looks like they’re sticking just to the first book – and pretty faithfully, albeit with some modern updates, such as mobile phones). However, certainly, it’s the kind of series that I want to see how the whole thing plays out, so I’ll continue to blog through it as I read.
I think it was my friend, Roz, who commented on the first book and mentioned that it was actually a soft intro to a series that became more extreme as it went on. At the time, I was a bit surprised, because I already thought the first book was fairly extreme for a young adult’s book, but – she was perfectly correct. This book raises the stakes and the content of the original story in every respect – most significantly in sex and violence, which could well be of concern to parents whose teenagers are reading the book.
As a recap, without wanting to give too much away (I always feel a bit guilty for talking about subsequent films/books in any franchise, for fear that I’m ruining the story that preceded it), we find Ellie and her teenage friends hiding out in Hell – the remote bush valley that they visited initially as a short camping trip at the beginning of the first book. However, in that first book, Australia was invaded by a foreign army while they were away and all the kids’ family and friends were captured and locked up. Now, in this second book, they ramp up their activities as guerilla fighers, attempting to strike back at the enemy (still from an unnamed country).
The main difference between this book and the last one is that in the first book, the situation of war was thrust upon them, and part of the tension was their discovery of just how bad things were. So any fighting they did was more one of survival. However, led by one of the boys, Homer (a Greek boy in this subtly multicultural group), our heroes decide to launch larger and larger attacks against the invaders.
Which is where things start to become problematic. In this new world of hiding from invaders, there are moral questions to be answered: If you fight, when are you justified in taking a life? Should you plan to kill people? What is that like?
Then, there is the question of the sexual awakening of Ellie and her new boyfriend, Lee. Their ongoing discussions about whether they should have sex and their eventual decision is probably going to be something that Christian parents will raise eyebrows about, especially because this is described in quite a detailed manner. To Marsden’s credit, subjects such as potential pregnancy and condoms are discussed, and sex isn’t turned into the big glamorous thing that it is in most films, but it’s still much more explicit than anything I was expecting.
By the end of the book (which is a particularly devastating ending, I should warn you), I was in two minds about the whole thing. On one hand, I absolutely love the concept of these books. By setting up a highly realistic world where Australia is invaded, we are able to think about the horrors of war and invasion (and its flipside – the wonders of living in a peaceful country) in a really well thought-out way. This is not a Hollywood war action film where characters just grab guns and blow away the bad guys willy-nilly. Every decision to fight, every move they make is dangerous, requires courage, and the emotional consequences of fighting are portrayed realistically.
But on the other hand, Marsden is clearly taking this opportunity to create a new social order. Currently, in our society (and it would have been even more extreme in the mid-90s when this book came out), there is often a divide between the stricter moralising of our parents and the “older generations” and the more free-wheeling post-modern approach of young people. Rights and wrongs, morals and laws, have been gradually replaced by doing what feels right and “if it doesn’t hurt anyone, it’s good”.
By using the literary device of a war that has locked up all the adults and left the teenagers to make their own decisions, Marsden is effectively letting his characters write their own moral rule book, without the input of parents and other authority figures that they would normally have. And this is done in such a realistic manner, than I think it is vital that any parent or young person reading this book should really have thought out what their morals are before they touch it. Questions such as when you should have sex, when is violence justified, are big questions – and not ones you just want to follow your feelings on.
So in a way, I’m almost a bit annoyed at John Marsden for opening this can of worms, without providing our characters with any guidance. In fact, to make matters more complicated, the young people disagree among themselves on issues, such as: when is it okay to kill someone else? There is one Christian character, Robyn, who is quite clearly recognised as a girl of faith, but it is unclear to what extent her faith is driving her decisions.
The closest they come to getting any input from adults is when they stumble across a camp of adult freedom fighters led by a Major Harvey. However, “Harvey’s Heroes” are portrayed as being domineering, pompous and thoroughly ineffective against the invaders and our characters don’t stick with them for long. What does this say to teenage readers? It seems to me that it’s saying that you really have to make up your own rules in life because grown-ups aren’t that useful.
So, to sum up, teenagers are going to burn through this – no troubles at all. They’ll love it. However, it deals with such big concepts, and doesn’t always provide the best guidance, that I think adults need to have a read of this as well (if your kids are reading it) and engage with the issues it raises. And trust me, if you’re a parent, once the movie comes out - your kids are going to latch on these books.
3 1/2 out of 5.