Ash Road by Ivan Southall is an Australian Young Adult (YA) novel set in country Victoria. First published in 1965, Ash Road tells the story of two separate groups of children and their various reactions to adversity. Wallace, Graham and Harry are a group of teenage boys on their first foray into the world without adults. Camping on a suffocating summer night, the boys accidentally set the bush ablaze. On the other side of the mountain, the children of Ash Road are left alone when their parents leave to fight the fire and assist with the evacuation of nearby towns. However, the blaze is soon out of control and the children are left to cope alone with the impending disaster.
On the surface, Ivan Southall’s Ash Road seems like a typical YA coming of age story but stating so would be doing this impressive piece of writing a disservice. While this book does contain some elements of growing up and leaving childhood behind, it is so much more than that. As characters of all ages stare into the face of disaster, they are forced to confront their own reactions, delving deeply into their own self-image, and ultimately growing as people.
Ash Road was the recipient of several literary awards, including the Book Council of Australia Australian Children’s Book of the Year 1966 and the American Library Association Notable Book 1966, and it is not difficult to see why.
Ash Road is written in a stream-of-consciousness style from various points of view, lending a sense of urgency and anxiety that keeps the pages turning. The characters are, for the most part, well fleshed out and show clear development throughout the story, but some of the characters, such as the Robertsons are a bit wishy-washy. Modern teens might also find the outdated currency and slang a bit jarring, but that is to be expected, and it’s not so bad as to detract from the enjoyment of the reader.
The true strength of this story, however, lies in Southall’s strikingly vivid descriptions of the Australian countryside, the heat of the Australian summer and the sheer majesty and terror of an approaching bushfire. The reader can hear the crackling of leaves underfoot, feel the dry heat of the North wind, smell the acrid sweetness of burning eucalypts.
Overall, Ash Road is an enjoyable novel which delves far more deeply into the psychology of human nature than an initial glance would imply. Southall is a truly talented writer who transports the reader into a world of fear and guilt, where every decision is life or death. This isn’t just a book for children, but a superb piece of writing that deserves a place on everybody’s shelf.