For two very happy years, I was the librarian in a new Queensland State High School. This was long ago: the twelve year olds who came to the school in that first year are now celebrating their fiftieth birthdays. Being the librarian was just an additional responsibility: I was still in the classroom and the library was something I managed in hours after school.
I loved it. In those two years I tried to read the fiction collection which had been assembled for us by wise women in Central Library Services. This was the late 1970s and social issues were all the go in adolescent fiction. I read stories about adoption, about autism, about teenage girls struggling against social expectation and about teenage boys struggling with their sexual identity. There were stories about single mothers, single fathers, adoption and domestic violence. These stories were worthy and righteous altogether. Perhaps they helped some student deal with the real life problems that attend adolescence in any decade. The difficulty was trying to get kids to read them. They mostly sat on the shelves in my little library.
I mention this because in my last story, A Christmas Adventure at Saint Mary Mead, I deal with the issue of child sexual abuse. The difficulty is that I found the boundaries for what was appropriate and what was not appropriate were much harder to establish than I thought they would be. This is a story for children – specifically for children in their early teens. We might call this the young adult reading group but I’m not sure that most thirteen year olds are well equipped to deal with the trauma of sexual abuse – even vicariously. I also didn’t want my story to end up preachy and precious like the stories I had read in the 1970s. I know: you’re going to tell me that all my writing is preachy and righteous and this won’t be any different. But it is genuine challenge to the writer; how to manage this tension?
I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether I got it right. The easiest decision in the writing was how frank to make the treatment of the subject. Answer: not at all. The hero of the story, an orphan named William, is adopted from an Edwardian orphanage by a local gentleman – a Colonel who has had other boys from the orphanage. Nothing is explicit but the nature of the abuse is hinted at. I guess it might even be possible to read the story without the sexual nature of the abuse registering at all but anyone who has followed the terrible history of child sexual abuse exposed in the churches of United States, Ireland and Australia will recognise what is happening as the narrative develops.
Despite the dark subject matter I tried very hard to keep to the naïve style of the storytelling. The figures in naïve paintings don’t cast a shadow; that is what I was aiming at in most of my stories. It’s clearer in the early pirate stories than in some of the later stories but that was always the aim. Darkness can be presented but not in any confronting way that might unsettle a young reader.
It’s hard to think of anything darker than the sexual abuse hinted at in this story. It’s also hard to think about what justice might look like at the conclusion of the story. I tried to show the complexity of the relationship between perpetrator and victim acknowledging that there could be tenderness as well as violence. I also tried to set the particular abuse of the boy within the much wider social injustice of a culture and society based on class privilege and exploitation. And all of this happens against the colonial exploitation of India and the extraordinary sacrifice of poor people in the Great War.
I’m not going to rush into exploring the dark side of the world of children. Don’t expect stories about girls with bipolar or boys with Tourette’s syndrome. But I might think about how to manage dark matter more honestly – even within the framework of the naïve story.