The Boy from the Mish
It was with a feeling of trepidation that I set out to review this book. It’s categorised as YA (Young Adult) fiction, which theoretically targets 12 to 18 year olds. Now, even at the upper end, I haven’t been a young adult for 45 years.
The YA genre is widely seen as evolving in the 1970s, with S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders one of the first books to target a teenage audience and explore alienation from the teens’ point of view. Typically, the protagonists struggle with families and peers, navigate the minefields of adolescent sexuality, drugs and alcohol, and emerge changed, having absorbed some (often painful) life lessons. Many, like the groundbreaking Outsiders, are narrated by young people struggling with difference, be it poverty, race, nerdiness, appearance or sexuality.
In this sense, The Boy from the Mish is both a classic coming of age novel and an unusual book. Classic because the narrator, a 17-year-old Aboriginal boy called Jackson, who lives on the Mish (Mission), is facing a huge issue of sexuality and identity. Unusual because its main characters are Aboriginal boys and young men living in a country town, a demographic we don’t often hear from in YA novels. Author Gary Lonesborough stresses that while this is a work of fiction, it is informed by his own life experience.
Opening just before Christmas, when Aunty Pat always visits with Jackson’s younger cousins, The Boy from the Mish also features a common literary plot element – the mysterious stranger whose arrival heralds change. Here, the stranger is Tomas, who Aunty Pat brings along on the Christmas visit. Tomas has been in juvie, his past is murky, and initially Jackson is annoyed to have to share his room with him.
While Jackson is unable to maintain an erection with his girlfriend Tesha, he begins to find himself attracted to Tomas. His confusion over his sexuality – and his fear of ostracism, should he turn out to be gay – form the centre of the novel’s plot. Other issues are touched on – racism, underage drinking and pot smoking, Jackson’s lack of direction among them.
While Lonesborough’s narrative flows, and his language is direct and clear, the book is more appropriate for the upper end of the YA audience. There is frank discussion of Jackson’s impotence with Tesha, the boys on the Mish swear a bit and same sex attraction is openly mentioned. With its combination of universal themes of identity and acceptance and a distinctly Australian setting, The Boy from the Mish is a book full of heart.
See Catherine DeMayo’s interview with Gary Lonesborough here.