It seems that everyone who is younger than me read these books as teenagers, and often at school. John Marsden is a prolific Australian writer, and this series has captured the minds of Aussie teens (and others) for 20 years.
It is set vaguely in modern day Australia in a location that could be almost be anywhere: that is, a rural community near a coastal harbour, with towns nearby and much surrounding bushland. Narrated by Ellie, she and a group of friends decide to go camping for a few days in the nearby bushland, deciding to try and get into “Hell”, a deep secluded valley with poor access named by locals after rumours that a murderous hermit used to live there.
They have a lovely few days, doing the things teenagers do – chatting, seeing who is interested in each other and generally having fun. The only hint something might be up is that one night many planes fly over. At the end of the trip, they head back to their homes and realise something is dreadfully wrong. For a start, there is no-one to be seen. Chained dogs at farms have died, stock have been left untended, and there are no people to be found. They start to realise the truth – there has been a massive invasion, some areas have been damaged by bombs, but almost all people are being held at the Showground, as the invasion was timed for Commemoration Day, the day the entire local community went to the Show.
Now Ellie and her friends must figure out what to do. They are some of the few people who were not caught. Do they try to get to their families in the Showground, do they escape back to Hell and wait it out assuming rescue will come, or do they take action against the invaders?
This is a gripping series that covers seven books, Tomorrow When the War Began is the title of the first. I moved straight from one to the next without pausing in between and devoured them all in a few weeks. The whole series covers about 18 months. As the stories progress, the main characters have to deal with grief, uncertainty, the responsibility of caring for others, and learning how to survive. They have to engage with the enemy and there is a fair amount of tension, violence and death. Along the way, some of the teens develop romantic attachments with each other, and while they aren’t the key theme of any of the books, they are there.
Both my eldest two children were given these to read as class texts at age 11, and they loved them and devoured them, much like I just have. Having read them now myself, I would have liked it if they have discovered them a year or two later. They deal with some very mature themes and raise questions of what you might do in similar circumstances. There are some astute observations about the Australian way of life and how other nations might value what we have enough to come and take it. There are honest observations about how people react under pressure and the choices they make. And there are adolescent love stories going on too. However, what’s done is done – it’s hard to argue with school teachers on these things. So when your kids end up reading these at school (which seems almost inevitable in Australia), if you haven’t read them yet – do so. Enjoy them yourself and then make sure you are ready to talk about the issues they raise.
I then moved on to the next series which follows, three books of Ellie Chronicles, which chart her life for about 12 months after the war. Amazingly these were almost more tense and violent that the Tomorrow series, as Ellie’s life is turned completely upside down as the realities of life post-war are lived out. A very good series, but not for the faint-hearted.