Twelve-year-old Isabel Wyatt’s the oldest, and with her dad away building the Great Ocean Road, and her mother cleaning rich people’s houses in between the other work, it falls to Isa to take care of the younger children, help around the house, go to the welfare lady for food vouchers, take in laundry, and sew for Madame in Collins Street. Johnno has two paper routes, but he’s only ten and not too reliable around the house; five-year-old Rosie keeps the chooks, and Billy the baby’s too little to help at all. But they’re managing. Somehow. But although summer’s coming, and that means no more scratchy newspaper for blankets, the Great Depression’s starting to hit harder than ever.
When Isa’s mum makes her promise that, whatever happens, she’ll keep the children together, she has no way of knowing that only days later she’ll fall from a ladder cleaning a rich woman’s picture rails. Hospital’s bad enough – Isa has to beg a nightgown off snooty Mrs Auburn because mum’s is only a rag, and the fare to the hospital would almost break the bank, let alone the hospital fees. But when her mother’s diagnosed with the dreaded tuberculosis, often fatal and treated with months of rest far away in the country, and a telegram fails to find her father, the authorities try to separate Isa from her brothers and sister.
In desperation, Isa makes up an aunt on her father’s side, who lives in Apollo Bay. Thanks to the kindness of a stranger, they have train tickets to Colac. Armed with a pram, a thermos and a tarpaulin, Isa sets off, siblings in tow, on the long, arduous trek to track down her father.
I’ve avoided Greenwood for a little while, after the wrenching disappointment of Waleroad, but all is wholly forgiven! As always, the historical detail is not only meticulously researched but seamlessly woven into the plot, so that I came away knowing more about the period (and hoping Phryne will live forever in the glorious twenties) without being dumped on. Isa is plucky and resourceful, with a very strong sense of responsibility, though wholly human.
For me this story was as much about humanity in general – exemplified by the people who alternately help and hinder the journey – as it was about Isa herself. The ending was a little too neat, though well supported, and acceptable giving the genre and target audience. I found it satisfying, too! A lovely sense of time and place, Greenwood mercifully delivers again. - Alex