Readers of Ash Road gain the utmost respect for the power of fire. Yet, the most important lessons to be learned from the novel come not from the natural disaster itself but from the characters’ responses to it. In Ash Road, Southall provides a painfully realistic view of how individuals cope with an extraordinary event. The reader vicariously experiences the frenzied emotions and panic of both children and adults and witnesses how in the fight for survival humans can exhibit both their worst and their best traits. The general portrayal is bleak, but Southall does allow some room for the characters to demonstrate growth, especially the young. Unlike the adults, the children mature as a result of their ordeal. As Peter ran to seek his grandmother, he knew “that he was running into manhood and leaving childhood behind.” He accepted Gran’s hug as a man. As Graham and Lorna faced the fire in the carrot paddock, they knew “that they would continue to know each other for the rest of their lives.” The bond that they have formed during the crisis will give Graham the strength to admit his mistake and Lorna the pride and dignity to meet whatever life would give her. Gran, on the other hand, is merely “confused and revived,” and Grandpa Tanner feels disappointment that he is still alive.
The story has the structure of a live-action television report as it moves from views of the fire to focus on one character after another as they respond to the events of the day. The speed of the fire seems to control the pacing...
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During a writing career spanning more than fifty years, Southall became a well-known, popular, and award-winning writer for children and young adults. His desire to surround the great moments of life with words and protect them for young readers has been appreciated by both children and critics. Ash Road is one of the novels for which Southall received the Australian Children’s Book of the Year Award. It displays many of the elements found in his other works: Hills End (1962), To the Wild Sky (1967), Finn’s Folly (1969), and Chinaman’s Reef Is Ours (1970) are all fast-moving survival tales. In each, young people face adversity with little or no adult support. This formula appears to be successful: Although Ash Road was first published in 1966, it has a contemporary feel and retains its appeal as a compelling survival story.