Kicking off our final week of the KYD YA Championship with a bang, Kate O’Donnell pulls out the YA big guns with her discussion of John Marsden’s beloved Tomorrow, When the War Began.
As kids, we took the game Spotlight very seriously. Spread out through the bush in the dark, burrowed in damp leaf litter, or perched up a tree, trying not to laugh or breathe. Sometimes you’d be spotted and have to sit on a tree stump until some fast-running hero came and freed you and the game went on. It was cutthroat and, if not to the death, then to the bruise, graze and twisted ankle.
Then Tomorrow, When The War Began was released and I thought: this shit just got real. John Marsden’s novel – the first of the successful Tomorrow Series – quickly became one of the best and most popular books for teenagers and I’m convinced it’s the most significant Australian YA book of all time.
After all, it’s an adventure story, which is always going to appeal to readers and non-readers, and to girls as well as boys. Young people fighting enemy soldiers, living off the land, explosions, guns, combat? Those pages practically turn themselves. And, it made me pretty sure I could be a teenage guerrilla fighter too, especially given my mad Spotlight skills.
Marsden gave us Ellie, this kick-arse female protagonist who is ballsy and brave but tender underneath. He gave us a cast of characters we could identify with, a group of people we loved and cared about (and mourned for) as if they were really real.
And finally, the kicker: he set it in our backyard. The invasion of Australia by an unnamed country in Tomorrow was – and still is – so terribly, and frighteningly, believable.
The writing is direct, thoughtful and strong. Marsden has talked often of the way Ellie’s voice, and this story, came to him all at once. It’s also so authentically teenage and real. Through Ellie, Marsden never speaks down to his audience and he doesn’t shy away from packing an emotional punch. He delivers a swift kick to the heart, as well as the face.
Ellie’s powerful narration also made readers – at least this reader – first seriously consider the ethics and politics of war. She’s a country girl whose world has shattered overnight, who has to challenge her own concepts of right and wrong, of good and evil. I loved her for her contradictions, her guilt at not being captured, her terror, her bravery, her mistakes and her feelings of love and lust even during wartime.
For all the talking and feelings, the action scenes in Tomorrow still blow your mind. Tension sometimes builds like a slow burn, but then at other times we’re off in a terrifying split second. The attacks the group pull off might seem improbable to some, but because the reader is there as plans are made by capable farm kids with practical skills (and shotguns), the element of surprise and a whole lot of dumb luck – it’s all totally believable. Whether they’re blowing up ride-on mowers or bridges you can smell the diesel fuel, hear the bullets, feel the sweat and see the blood.
You all know what I’m talking about. You’ve read it. You debated who the occupying force might be. You flipped repeatedly and secretly to the sex scene in book two and cried when the amazing, terrible thing happens at the end of the third book. You imagined yourself in their situation, physically and emotionally.
And that’s the power of this book. In Tomorrow, When the War Began, it’s as though John Marsden took all of our games of Spotlight and gave them real consequences. From the moment when Ellie and the gang come back from Hell and find the dogs dead, their world has changed. And ours has changed too.
If you want Tomorrow, When The War Began to win the KYD YA Championship, you can cast your vote for it here! Vote now and you can also go into the draw to win some amazing prizes.