Book of the week

Johnston, Tony: Bone by Bone. Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2008. RRP $22.95

Bone by Bone, by Tony Johnston, cover imageNot long into Tony Johnston's fierce little tome Bone By Bone it becomes clear that ghosts are being laid to rest. In fact, you can fair hear the scrape of the nail against the wood grain.

As Johnston writes in the novella's introduction, her otherwise happy upbringing was soured by the unforgivable — a parent's xenophobia. She describes herself as 'haunted by my father'.

Bone by Bone isn't strictly autobiographical, however. It may be set in the 1950s, the era of Johnston's childhood, and in Tennessee where her father was born and raised, but this appears to be a shoring up of context rather than sentiment. Consolidating this, Johnston has a nine-year-old boy walk in her shoes.

David Church is a motherless boy who lives with his grandmother, great-grandmother and larger-than-life Daddy who rules the household with an iron fist. When David meets Malcolm, a local black child around his age, the attraction is immediate and prophetic. It was friendship at first sight,' says David. 'Malcolm, he was my heart-friend.'

In the manner of childhood friendships the two soon become inseparable. Not only are they a similar age, they share in a lively imagination as well as a passion for baseball. Both, too, can name each bone of the human body, thanks to the auxiliary third member of their gang — Fats— a 'birth' gift from David's father, a doctor.

'David honey,' Daddy said in a crouch next to my crib, 'meet Fats, your first playmate. You're gonna learn every one of his bones by heart. You, baby boy, are gonna be a doctor.'

My Mama newly dead, that fatherly gesture must have cost him. But maybe Daddy didn't link them, Mama and the skeleton.

Herein lies the schism in David's Daddy. The well-respected locum whose healing hands 'could coax radishes to becoming roses on their way up through the soil' was also a trigger-happy hunter and, in all likelihood, a paid-up member of the KKK. 'I'm laying down my Nigger Rule,' he tells David after the child challenges him on why his friend is not welcome in their home. 'Rule's simple: you ever let that nigger in, by God I'll shoot him.'

As David's friendship with Malcolm intensifies, and each drop of injustice congeals around them like a toxic puddle, it becomes more and more difficult for him to reconcile the father who patiently, lovingly, unravels the mysteries of each human bone, with the man whose hatred is skin deep.

It's unfortunate, and distracting, that Bone By Bone treads what appears to be all-too familiar territory. In David's tale of discovery and loss it's near impossible not to be reminded by the US classic To Kill a Mockingbird, but to dismiss the novella as a poor imitation is to sell it undeniably short.

Having written more than 80 books in a career that's spanned some 40 years, Johnston is one of America's finest and most prolific children's novelists (Bone is her first crossover book). Little wonder then that each passage comes to the page brimming with confidence. It's as if the very act of conjuring words out of thin air is, for Johnston, as rudimentary as popping up to the shops for a litre of milk.

Despite the novel's confessional origins there's little evidence of the self-indulgent or self-serving. Instead, as Australian author Ursula Dubosarsky points out, Bone By Bone is about 'loving the wrong person or, at least, working out painfully who is the right person to love' — a timeless message that transcends genres and bestows upon the term 'bound by blood' a profound, disquieting meaning.

Bone by Bone (Text Publishing)

Jen VukJen Vuk is a freelance writer. She works as a staff writer for the Salvation Army's magazine Warcry.

Topic tags: Jen Vuk reviews Bone by Bone, by Tony Johnston, Text Publishing



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