The cover of John Marsden’s young adult novel, Tomorrow, When the War Began, tells little about the gritty, multi-faceted story within. The sepia-toned, image of a young adult (is it a boy or a girl?) holding a frayed piece of rope reminded me more of the old string joke* than of a tightly written novel about war and its impacts.
Tomorrow is told from the perspective Ellie, a typical teenage girl from rural Australia who organizes a camping trip for six of her friends. They return to empty houses and dead or starving pets. Where was everyone? The teens gradually realize that Australia has been invaded and their families are being held in a detention camp. Resistors are being rounded up, the houses bombed by circling fighter jets. When one of their party is shot in the leg, Ellie participates in a daring rescue that results in the death and injury of a number of the invading soldiers.
Rather than reveling in their victory, Ellie and her friends are seriously conflicted. This is no Red Dawn story of vengence and chest thumping bravado. Each of the realistically drawn characters deal with the tragedy in their own way; some are justifiably outraged by the invasion, some terrified, one tries to see things from the invaders perspective. All are uncertain what they should do. They retreat to a remote mountain hideout to weigh their options and plan their next move. There, as they gather supplies and information, they begin to pair off—teenage hormones too powerful for even a war to interrupt.
Eventually, the teens decide that action is their only option. They plan and carry out an act of sabotage but pay a high price. The novel ends ambiguously, leaving plenty of storytelling for the other six books in the series. Originally published in 1993, Tomorrow, When the War Began was written well before the current crop of dystopian fiction, but Ellie is a worthy precursor to Katniss in the Hunger Games, a realistic heroine placed in an impossible situation. And like Suzanne Collins, Marsden deftly weaves action and emotion into an exciting story that longs to be read.
*The Old String Joke
A piece of string walk into a bar. The bartender scowls and says, “We don’t serve strings here, get out!”
The string steps outside, messes up his hair, pulls out a few threads and ties himself up. He examines his reflection in the bar’s window, nods and heads back inside.
The bartender looks at him suspiciously and says “Here, you’re not a bit of string, are you?”
The piece of string replies “No, I’m a frayed knot.”