Every year at the school I teach at, year 11 students are required to undertake 15 hours of Christian Service as part of their Religion Studies course. It is easier extracting blood from a stone. Not quite, but for many students, getting them engaged in an activity determined take them out of their comfort zone is a massive challenge. Even those who are compliant with the program tend to lean towards selecting activities where there is a certain predictable safety. Of course, those few students who do embrace the opportunity and take a risk get the most out of the program, something which is evident in their reflection report. Pip Harry’s latest novel, Because of You explores the challenges and life changing experience that community service programs have the potential to provide. The story follows the experience of Nola, a generally disengaged and reluctant student who is forced to undertake community service at a temporary homeless shelter. Through her involvement in a creative writing program she meets Tiny, an eighteen-year-old girl, currently homeless, she has been sleeping rough on the streets of Sydney.
Tiny is a believable character with Harry skilfully revealing her to us, with appropriate breadcrumbing of her back story. In a manner that mimics the core message of the story (don’t judge people without knowing who they truly are), we are able to understand how she came to be on the streets slowly, so that by the time we know her as a person we are open to her in a non-judgmental way. Nola, on the other hand is portrayed realistically as a reluctant participant, apathetic about school and everything in general (short of her social life). Readers can appreciate that Nola, while deeply flawed (and a bit spoilt) undertakes an impressive character arc from a place of ambivalence to compassion (the very same arc I hope all my 11 RE students will follow during their community service experience).
Pip Harry is a skilled writer and while I really enjoyed Head of the River, I strongly feel that this novel, as a story, has so much more to offer. Harry must be commended on tackling some really challenging issues that most Australians conveniently choose to ignore. In truth, the only thing I didn’t like about this book was the cover. I recall feeling the same way about another of Pip Harry’s covers (perhaps she has been let down again). At any rate, I find the cover totally uninspiring as may many potential (and somewhat fickle) adolescent readers. This is a shame because once I started the story, I literally couldn’t put it down.
While I’d really love to read this novel with my 11 RE class, realistically time will not allow this. However, I might read excerpts to the class. I am quite keen to investigate the possibility of introducing this as a text in the year 11 English curriculum, aligning it with the community service unit that is taught in Religion Studies at the same year.
Because of You is a deeply engaging story that while honestly exploring prejudice in contemporary Australian society, remains optimistic and hopeful about the kind of reality that we must continue to strive towards.
Tanya Grech Welden