Tomorrow, When the War Began- John Marsden

If you have a strong nostalgia for this book because you read it when you were a tween, then maybe don’t read this review. I can see how the reading of a book like this when you’re exactly the right age, right time/right place, would be a very different experience to the one I had coming to it as an adult in a critical context. I’m not out to shatter any illusions or cherished tween memories. So maybe just walk away if you rated this 4 or more on goodreads.
Having said that- what on earth? 

Tomorrow When the War Began is about two girls that convince their parents to let them go camping with some boys instead of going to their regional equivalent of the Royal Easter Show. While they’re gone, the country is invaded by an unknown nation because they are jealous of our decadent Australian lifestyle (I guess they don’t have Bunnings sausage sizzles where they’re from) and the girls realise that the crisis has made the boys even more desirable. As they try to solve problems of survival- food, shelter, reconnaissance- Ellie is forced to choose between physically attractive Homer, who she never considered romantically until her friend confessed her interest in him, and the smart guy she hadn’t even wanted to invite camping.

In the podcast Teen Creeps, the two hosts talk about how when an author writes young people, they’re really writing young people from when they were that age. So, in their example, the Christopher Pike book they were discussing was set in the 80s, but read like it was set in the 50s, with the girls obsessed with going out with boys and Sadie Hawkins dances and whatnot. 

In Tomorrow, the female main characters are the kind of boy-crazy girls only an older male author would invent. Their world is literally falling apart around them, their parents are being held captive by an unknown enemy, they’re running out of food and one of them has been shot, but oh my god, is Homer not just the dreamiest?

Homer is an interesting character, because he starts out a total psycho. He’s a menace in school and actively destructive- in his spare time he lights fires across roads to terrorise oncoming motorists. When you’re a tween and you don’t really think about stuff like that too much that just seems like a crazy thing to do, but reading it as an adult I just couldn’t switch off the part of ny brain that kept spluttering “He could have KILLED someone!” 

As the narrative progresses, his intense ADHD antics which were so aggravating in normal life, suddenly make him leadership material. He’s a trial by fire kind of guy, and the danger they are in galvanises him into someone capable and dynamic. You realise he was just bored and misunderstood before. And he’s so handsome.

At least the competition between Ellie and Fiona over Homer never escalates- it’s all in Ellie’s head so all you have to suffer through is some painful teen soul searching and Lee’s baffled attempts to understand Ellie’s irrational outbursts. Once she more or less chooses Lee, she spends the rest of the time alternating making out with him and slut shaming herself because they’re going so much faster than Homer and Fiona.

Oh, and there’s a war going on.

There are a few perplexing scenes where the teens are deciding what the best course of action is, whether its trying to find their parents, stockpile food, rescue a member of their team, etc. They generally come up with one very reasonable plan and one insane plan, and they choose the insane plan EVERY SINGLE TIME. It was incredible to read, because I couldn’t stop myself giving them the benefit of the doubt, and being continually surprised when they went the crazy no-way route. To their credit, they were so resourceful that even the insane plans more or less worked out… but think of how much easier it would have been if they’d done the sensible plans from the outset and then were able to relax and get on with the important business of getting down to bizniz. They would have gotten so much more necking done.

Ok, so we’ve talked about the boy-crazy part of my complaint. Now we’re going to talk about the Indigenous part.

Very interestingly, the teenagers discuss their anger and fear over the invasion, being separated from their parents, having their land stolen and the absence of help from other nations, without a single hint of irony, and entirely without acknowledging the fact that there was something of a precedent in Australia for this kind of thing. The only time Aboriginal Australians are mentioned at all is in a cringey paragraph when they discover Hell, a little Eden like paradise at the bottom of a set of terrifying cliffs, in which they are confident they are the first people to have ever set foot, Aboriginal people included. They’re wrong of course, they were beaten there by an old white guy with a tragic backstory.

Although they discuss the fact that they will have to adapt to living off the land eventually, for the duration of this book they are quite content to lounge around eating tim tams and discuss the potential of poaching ferrets on a nearby property. The Australian landscape is a curiously blank canvas, except their little paradise down in Hell, and consists mainly of roads and shrubs to hide in between their respective houses and the town. It’s a very settler perspective of what is of use is what is important, and they’re all no nonsense rural kids, so their whole world revolves around town and farm (they thumb their noses at the city).

In fact, the book makes a surprising attempt to keep race right off the table for discussion. Lee is mixed-race Thai and Vietnamese, Homer is Greek. The invasion is framed in terms of theft and classism, not so much differences in culture. The interlopers speak a foreign language, but between the mixed race heritage of the group no one can actually hazard a guess as to what it is. The much more important detail is the fact that there are women among the invading army, and young people- teenagers even. The teens postulate whether this is progressive or just symptomatic of necessity, the invading army just would not have had the man-power otherwise. Their uniforms are pretty ratty after all. There is no description of their skin colour or other cultural identifiers. So this book is  not about race. Nope. Definitely not. John Marsden made a totally non-problematic choice, as an Australian white man, that he didn’t want race to be an issue in his book about invasion. It’s about money, guys. It’s about class warfare. The haves vs. the have nots. Except that the poor are the bad guys? And the rich are the bad guys too….

If you didn’t grow up on a farm, then you’re the bad guy. I guess. Ellie even observes, several times, that Fiona is held apart from the group in some ways because she is from town and her privileged life is a subject of tension between her and farmboy Homer. They resent her cushy upbringing even as they envy it. 

And there are no brown people to complicate things. (Seriously, it didn’t even have to be someone in the team. Neighbour, classmate, anyone in or around the town! Just a passing mention.)

Having said that, I did give it 3 stars. It certainly delivered in terms of explosions and kissing (I could have lived with less kissing), and learning not to judge the old town recluse by their urban myth. So there was character growth. I recognised fairly early on that if it wasn’t for my dissertation work, I wouldn’t have read this book. There’s nothing particularly offensive about it, but I just didn’t connect with the characters enough to mitigate the parts of the narrative thatI struggled with.  I don’t really understand why it is as popular as it is, but I think it goes back to that idea of reading it at the right time in your life, are the right age. I really don’t understand how you could read it without being troubled by the attempt to deal with invasion politics in Australia without even paying lip service to the traditional owners of the land. For the book to work you really need to be at an age before those politics start to enter your life in mid to late high school… or I suppose the alternative is to just not care. Because the book needs you, as an Australian, to say oh it would be awful to have the land your family has lived on for generations to be taken away from you, and to be incarcerated in a makeshift detention centre by an army that is completely alien to you, but we don’t need to think about what that was like for those other people who we did those things to. 

Or did I miss the entire point of the book? I spent a lot of time wondering that too, that that was what Marsden was trying to say all along, making a deliberate point about Australia’s refusal to really deal with what happened, and that the oblivious teenagers really represent all of us that grew up under the Howard-era history wars. Maybe?


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