Monday, August 24, 2009

Dystopia Challenge Review #18: Tomorrow, When the War Began, by John Marsden

Tomorrow, When the War Began is the first book in one of Australia's most popular young adult series. Since its publication in 1993 it has been kept constantly in print and on bookshop shelves, and has been extremely well received elsewhere in the world. It gave me my first taste of dystopian fiction as a teenager and has remained one of my favourite books. I reread it for my dystopia challenge and I'm pleased that it's as good as I remember.

Seven teenagers go camping for a week in a remote, almost inaccessible valley known locally as Hell. Upon their return they discover that their rural hometown of Wirrawee has been invaded by a foreign power and nearly everyone has been taken prisoner. At first the group has no way of knowing the extent of the invasion, but soon discover that nearly all of Australia has fallen to the invaders. Told through Ellie, this is an intense story of the group's fight for survival and freedom.

The charm of the Tomorrow series is in it's characters. Each represents an archetypal Australian teenager. Ellie, the narrator, is the farm girl, practical and resourceful. Fi is the sweet and unpractical "city" girl. Robin is squeamish and religious, but the one to rely on. Corrie is the BFF, the girl next door. Kevin is the blustery, hot-headed young man, the one who radiates "bad news". Lee is a "still waters run deep" sort of guy with a tendency to sulk. Homer is the knockabout, quick to poke fun, but able to keep his head in a crisis.

Marsden puts these seven characters under intense pressure, and that's when the fun begins. I have a bad habit of turning over the bottom corner of a page when I come across a particular telling or witty passage, so I can revisit it later. Tomorrow has got about a hundred little dog-eared corners. Here are a couple:

"Nearly home free," I said, and set off again. I should have touched wood once more before I did. The moment I showed my nose, a clatter of gunfire started up behind me. Bullets zinged past, chopping huge chunks of wood out of a tree to my left. I heard a gasp from Corrie and a cry from Kevin. It was as though I had left the ground with sheer fear. For a moment I lost contact with the earth. It was a strange feeling, like I had ceased to be. Then I was diving at the corner of the road, rolling through the grass and wriggling like an earwig into cover. At once I turned to yell at Kevin and Corrie, but as I did they landed on top of me, knocking the wind out of me.

"Go like stink," Kevin said, pulling me up. "They're coming."

I love that line. "They're coming." Another favourite passage is this one, where Ellie begins to feel the fallout of a kill-or-be-killed situation:

It was hard for me to believe that I, plain old Ellie, nothing special about me, middle of the road in every way, had probably just killed three people. It was too big for me to get my mind around. When I thought of it baldly like that: killed three people, I was so filled with horror. I felt that my life was permanently damaged, that I could never be normal again, that the rest of my life would just be a shell. Ellie might walk and talk and eat and drink, but the inside Ellie, her feelings, were condemned to wither and die.
As well as all the running and hiding and fighting and outwitting the teenagers have to do, regular, everyday tensions arise. Power struggles. Romance. Ellie and Homer? Ellie and Lee? Homer and Fi? Ellie remarks at one point that it's impossible to think about relationships in the situation they're in. But the sexual tension is there throughout the whole series, simmering away and adding another dimension to the plot.

Tomorrow has a great sense of place. The interior of Australia is a harsh, unforgiving land. Most of our population lives on the eastern seaboard in the cities of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Travel west from any of these places and you will quickly find yourself isolated. The countryside is beautiful: craggy rock formations, gullies, paddocks of dusty sheep. It's these that Marsden describes in Tomorrow, evoking the beauty of rural Australia, but also its unforgiving nature. (Travel further west, right into the interior, and you reach the desert: flat, sharp rocks, spiky plants, and miles of it. Watch Rabbit Proof Fence or Lucky Miles if you want to get a sense of what it's like.)

I also want to explore here two things Marsden makes intentionally vague throughout the series: Who invaded Australia, and when exactly did it happen?

The first thing I noticed when reading Tomorrow this time around is that the invasion occurs on Commemoration Day. Huh? Commemoration Day? There IS no such holiday in Australia. After a bit of Googling I discovered that Commemoration Day is a collective term for several of our national holidays, notably Australia Day (January 6), Anzac Day (April 25) and Remembrance Day (November 11). At some point in the novel Ellie sees fires burning in the distance and remarks that it's too late for burning off (we have fire restrictions over the dry months) and too early for bushfires. Most of our bushfires occur at the end of summer, in February, as with the ferocious and deadly bushfires that occurred earlier in the year that became known as the Black Saturday bushfires. The only holiday that Commemoration Day could refer to, then, is Australia Day. There is a certain irony to this. Australia Day is also known unofficially by Indigenous Australians and their supporters as Invasion Day, as it marks the day that Britain brought disease, murder and abuse to the Indigenous population. It's difficult to say whether Marsden is trying to draw parallels between this event and the events in his series. As I remember there is nothing further in the books that could be taken as supporting Indigenous rights.

The identity of the invaders is also vague, which is understandable. It's not necessary to the story to be able to know who the invaders are. I only wonder for reasons of pure curiosity. All that is said is that they come from a crowded country not far to the north of Australia, and one with a huge military budget. I wondered at first if it could be Indonesia, which is directly north of Australia, but I don't believe their air force is anywhere near as large as the one described by Marsden. Logically, then, it must be either China, Japan or North Korea. Since the inaugural Australia/Invasion Day, this country has only experienced direct attacks during the bombings of Darwin by the Japanese on fifty-nine occasions over 1942/3. The bombings, which occurred during WWII, resulted in a huge loss of morale for Australians. For historical reasons, then, it is possible that the invaders are Japanese. Again, this is speculation for the sake of speculation. I only wonder because I can, not because I'm trying to imply anything about China or Japan or North Korea.

Then again, perhaps Marsden doesn't specify who the invaders are because he doesn't know either--he never intended it to be one nation in particular, but just A Nation.

One last interesting point: When I was reading Z for Zachariah Robert C. O'Brien, the valley Ann and Mr Loomis inhabit remind me a lot of Hell. It's the last place on Earth/Australia that provides sanctuary for the books' characters. To my surprise I found this snippet on page 4o. Ellie and her crew are sitting around in Hell, conjecturing about the end of the world and how cut off they are. It's a rather prescient conversation as a short while later they emerge and discover that the world they know has ended:

"Did you do that book last year in English?" Kevin asked. "X or something?"

"Z? Z for Zachariah?"

"Yeah, that one. That was good I reckon. Only decent book we've ever
If I'd done Z for Zachariah at school I'd be inclined to agree with Kevin.


  1. Interesting review of an Australian fave.
    Did you know they're currently casting for the movie? I think they're shooting in the Hunter Valley (outside my hometown of Newcastle) - I think it'd be the perfect setting!

  2. Great review Rhiannon - my class and I are reading this as our English text at the momebt and there's been fierce debates about who the enemy is. After reading your review I am eager to bring up the concept of Commemoration Day with them again.

    The movie is something my class is both excited and fearful of. They are so cute, they were terrified that it would be all American actors in the cast and most worryingly, their fave Homer. Fingers crossed this won't happen but as it's Australian financed and shot here, I doubt we have to worry.

    Again, great review!

  3. All I've heard of the film so far is that a director has been assigned who is also writing the screenplay. This his directorial debut, which worries me a little. But yes, I'm REALLY worried that American actors will be used. It will just wreck it for there to be inexplicable American accents. I guess it depends on who's financing the film--and you say the money comes from here so looks like it'll be ok! It would be bizarre for Homer especially, a Greek-Australian, to be played by an American. He's so my favourite too. The Hunter Valley is gorgeous. Great spot for filming.

  4. Official fan-site!

    No cast news yet though.

  5. I have so much adoration for this series. My nervousness about the movie is outdone by my curiosity about how it will translate to screen. The Hunter Valley, eh? Road trip time! XD

    I would say that Australia Day would be a pretty accurate pick for the invasion date. While any political/social commentary regarding what day this invasion occurred is debatable, don't forget that Marsden also wrote the picture book The Rabbits about the European settlement/invasion. I remember studying it in highschool.

    I once came across a post someone had written about their theory that Marsden had intentionally made it so that the invading country could not be pin pointed as any particular country. I feel that the anonymity was intentional. I'll have to try find this article again.

  6. Nice review - sound like a movie that was popular here in the US when I was a post teen - "Red Dawn" - 1984. I'm wondering if its available in the US. I am going to add you on goodreads. :)

  7. This book sounds like another compulsory addition to the wishlist!

    Re: the movie and Shellie's comment above, I figured Isabel Lucas would be an obvious choice of young Australian actress... but then I googled her and found she's got a role in the Red Dawn remake.

    If a film is shot in Australia, isn't there a rule that a certain percentage of the cast has to be Australian?

  8. just watched the film and wanted to comment on who attacked australia. the emblem on the troops helmets is made up of both china and japan. the sun of japan as the back ground with the china star over the top. It also makes sense as japan has the technology and platform and china has the troops. id also like to point out the uniform is japanees in origin if im not mistaken.

  9. When they use the transmitter to intercept the enemy's signal fi says they are speaking taiwanese, but there is no taiwanese language, people in taiwan just speak a dialect from china.

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