A generous and finely-tuned portrayl of a dusty and boisterous childhood in all its bewilderment

Jessie Neilson reviews Little Gods by Jenny Ackland. Published by Allen & Unwin.

Olive Lovelock is an only child growing up in rural Australia, surrounded by her mother and aunts, cousins, and her pet raven, Grace. The Lovelocks operate a little on the outer and have the  reputation of being a bit odd. After all, Stratford is considered hard country, an arid piece of land that attracts quiet men and tough women.

The Lovelock women are definitely of this ilk, and the three sisters are locked in an "ever-moving constellation of shifting alliances". Aunt Thistle in particular nurtures 12-year-old Olive to be strong and resilient, questioning everything. With this back-up she does not doubt herself, and calls herself a girl with a "magnificent brain".

Olive spends a lot of time at her cousins’ farm, which feels interchangeable with her own home in this fluid domestic set-up, and the children put on yearly plays, explore the barren back-blocks, and rescue infant animals from their roadkill-victim parents. She cherishes ghoulish subject matter, delighting in the sound of new words, macabre on her tongue. Sometimes she feels as if she is ethereal or invisible and not quite of the physical world, observing as if from some remove.

Along with her friend Peter, she tries to avoid confrontation in the school yard. Among her peers she is frequently the subject of gossip, and the roughest youngsters in town, the Sands, do their best to rile her simply for existing. Jethro is the meanest bully of all, and qualifies as one of the "little gods"; those people who assume they are powerful and use their arrogance to achieve shady things.

Apart from these tensions, the friends spend a reasonably idyllic childhood, making huts, adventuring, and disappearing into the world of imagination. However, what consumes Olive above all else is the knowledge she once had a baby sister, and only ambiguity surrounds her end.

Coupled with this awareness, she finds that more aspects of the adult world are seeping in, and from witnessed interactions between adults close to her she is startled to realise that life can be unexpected, difficult and cruel for adults too. Olive approaches the dark side of life at first strategically, through Aunt Rue’s introductions to her old nursing books, which display  fascinating diagrams  of pustules, wounds, rashes and infections "in exacting purple and nicotine tones".

However, as her mind begins to fire off conspiracy theories concerning the demise of her sister, Olive turns wholeheartedly to this focus. She attempts seances, using ouija boards, in a hope of ascertaining some truth, for the elders in her family will not approach the subject.

This is the second novel from Melbourne-based teacher and writer, Jenny Ackland. With attention to the small things, she beautifully portrays a dusty, dazed, and boisterous childhood in all its bewilderment. Ackland empowers her protagonist so we can feel only compassion for her; for her rage at uncertainty and vindictiveness, and as she attempts to order her history, to seek clarity and a truth. A generous and finely-tuned work.

- Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

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