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Friday, December 13, 2013

The Invisible Hero by Elizabeth Fensham. St Lucia: UQP, 2013

At an ordinary high school, a class of Year 9 students are given the task of researching and writing about a hero or villain and presenting to the class. It's a joint project between history and English, so there's a journal to keep as well. There is the usual variety of characters - totally evil bully Macca, the son of the local lawyer, and his gang, his girlfriend Genelle, leader of the popular girls' gang, but not very bright, new girl Raphaela who is intelligent and hard working, but the object of some of the bullying, gentle but brave Ruth, her friend Imogen and Phil Dugan, the "invisible hero" of the title who lives with his grandmother, a small, brave and giant-hearted woman, and is bullied by Macca's gang for wearing the blue glasses he needs to help with his dyslexia. 

The novel is made up of journal entries as the characters research their heroes and villains and muse on what makes a hero or villain. Macca decides his hero is Machiavelli, whose philosophy he follows. To the average student, he is a bully they are terrified to stand up to, but to most of the staff he is the golden boy who raises money for charity and arranges a school tree planting. Of course, it's all in the interests of power and his future career. Turkish boy Mustafa discovers one of his grandfather's heroes, Lord Bloody Wog Rolo, an Argentinian immigrant who found Australia was not as fair and just as he'd expected and fought with humour. Raphaela has a hard time making up her mind till she discovers the White Rose group in Nazi Germany and a pacifist who died horribly for calling Hitler evil.

During the research, there is bullying and random acts of kindness and the mysterious arrival of a river red gum seedling in the schoolyard, stealing the publicity from Macca's tree planting.

I liked that each character has his or her own viewpoint, including the villain. That worked well for characterisation. The reader doesn't have to see the villain merely from the hero's viewpoint because he has the chance to speak for himself, and isn't he dreadful!  It was a nice touch to have him discover Machiavelli and use The Prince in his own life, although I suspect he has been a Machiavellian all the time. Another nice touch when a character wonders if Macca has a dreadful home life, but it has already been made clear he is a copy of his horrible father, whom he admires and who supports him. Mustafa is a sweet boy who is close with his grandfather and respects his Turkish old "men's club" even though he's heard the same stories over and over. Phil is part of a large multicultural community that meets at his Nan's home for soup every week.

It's a powerful piece of writing which I think would make a telemovie if the Australian Children's Television Foundation ever gets around to it. The author has incorporated some of her own background into the book, including at least one hero whom her father knew at Oxford, and a woman who inspired Phil's Nan.

There are just a few nitpicks I have with the book. In real life, a boy as wealthy and snobbish as Macca would be unlikely to be attending a state school. He'd be leading the debating team and bullying the cadets at some exclusive boys' grammar. And then he'd probably go into politics and bully on a larger scale. Just check out the bio of any high scale political bully and that's the background you'll mostly find. A brief explanation of why Macca is at ordinary Taunton high school would have helped. Perhaps he was kicked out of his exclusive boys' grammar?

I also wondered why the class should be impressed by a PowerPoint presentation, something that has become standard in most schools. The average year 7 child I know automatically turns on PowerPoint for an assignment, even if they don't have to do a presentation.

The bullying teacher Mr Quayle is perhaps a bit over the top and you have to wonder why decent Mrs Canmore has chosen to team teach with him. 

Still, it's definitely worth a read, especially for teens who want ideas on standing up to bullies and might raise some interest in the historical figures mentioned. It also has some meat for class discussion.


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