The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell was one of my favourite reads of 2021 so I was eager to read her new book, The Song Walker set in the Australian Outback, published in February by Usborne Books. From its intriguing opening to its emotional and fulfilling final pages this is an astonishing story about friendship and self discovery. A children’s book which provides the reader, of any age, with much to think about.
A young girl walks through a dusty, flat, red landscape beneath a blazing sun. She wears a black dress, one shoe, carries a heavy awkward case and as she struggles with exhaustion and pain she has no idea where she is. More importantly she has no idea who she is. An irresistible opening which prompts questions and ideas from the reader and leads seamlessly on to the journey of this nameless girl. She soon meets Tarni, a First Country Australian girl from the Alaywarre community on a journey of her own, and together the two girls embark on a trek across the vast Australian Outback in search of answers.
This is a story so compelling and beautifully told that I am reluctant to provide much detail regarding the plot which unfolds gradually with the author dropping subtle hints throughout which immerse the reader in the story completely. The descriptions of the setting are vivid and one can almost feel the heat the two girls are experiencing. Zillah Bethell won the Edward Stanford Children’s Travel of the Year 2022 for The Shark Caller and this story once again enables young readers to experience the landscape, flora and fauna of a far away land.
It is the two girls however that shine throughout this epic journey. Their differences and their similarities, their concerns and their questions gradually unite them in a remarkable bond as Tarni searches for her sister and the lost girl searches for her identity. As memories drift back like dreams the city girl questions herself and her attitudes and this journey of self discovery prompts the reader to think about their own sense of self too. This would be an excellent book to prompt philosophical discussion. Music threads its way through the narrative with each separate part of the story introduced with a musical term and its definition. This theme is echoed in the First Country song lines through which Tarni navigates their route across the Outback. The connections between people and places and the respect for traditions is an important aspect of this extraordinary story. Although unlike anything I have ever read it reminded me a little of the situation of the children featured in Walkabout, the book by James Vance Marshall subsequently made into a film in the 1970s. There are moments of bravery, tenderness, danger and excitement as the two young people continue on their trek but chief among all the emotions is trust. This is an unusual but important friendship through which both girls learn a great deal about themselves and, ultimately, answers to their questions.
Zillah has a writing style that I find deeply affecting. She manages to convey great emotion in an understated manner and there is wisdom in her stories too. The Song Walker is an excellent example of why children’s literature is for everyone. There are themes of identity, spirituality, discrimination and loss wrapped up in a compelling and profoundly moving story that leaves the reader enriched by the experience.
If readers would like to find out more about First Country Australians like Tarni the publishers have provided links to further information on their Usborne Quick Links website. The Song Walker is published in February 2023 and I should like to thank the publishers and Fritha Lindqvist for my review copy. You can purchase a copy here. If you have not already read The Shark Caller I would also highly recommend it. I can’t decide which I like more!
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