"By the River" by Steven Herrick
By the River is a verse novel centred around Harry Hodby, a young boy growing up in rural Queensland in the 60’s. Herrick’s evocative writing gives us succinct and powerful images of Harry’s life; from devouring juicy chunks of watermelon in the backyard with his father and brother, to his school-boy crush on the school secretary, Miss Spencer. This book examines themes of grief, adolescence, the family unit, societal attitudes and much more.
Due to its poetic form, By the River is quick to read, however it is still substantial in storyline and imagery. Herrick is selective in his choice of scenes, and precise in his placement of each poem, resulting in maximum impact in minimal words. I particularly liked Herrick’s description of Harry’s father’s job at the local foundry in the opening poem,
“There he wore/ goggles/ and a mask/ as he fed sheet metal/ into the grinder,/ and little iron filings/ would spray his skin/ with needle-point accuracy,/ ‘so sharp it was like/ getting tattooed/ every day/ for twenty years’.” (p.7)
Immediately the reader is able to create an image of this tough working-class man in their mind.
Like Paul Jenning’s most recent book, Hedley Hopkins Did a Dare…, Herrick’s By the River seems to take on a semi-autobiographical tone. A gentle blanket of nostalgia covers a sharp and realistic portrayal of childhood in a way that suggests that Herrick has drawn upon personal experience to craft his characters and settings. Like Hedley Hopkins Did a Dare…, I believe By the River will also appeal to a broad readership, from adults who will enjoy the journey back to a 1960’s childhood, to much younger readers who will be drawn to the rough and ready characters such as Johnny Barlow, “whose lightning fists draw blood in a blur.”
In his review, Bill Wootton (Viewpoint, Spring 2004) pegs this as a novel that will appeal particularly to boys. He can picture young male readers “rippling with laughter at images such as Herrick’s fireworks one of Tom Thumbs going off like a classroom of boys/ farting/ one after the other.”
By the River was named as an Honour Book in the 2005 CBCA Book of the Year Award in the Older Readers category.