Steven Herrick’s The Simple Gift was published in 2004 by Simon Pulse. The story focuses on Billy, who is sixteen years old and living in Australia. Billy’s father is abusive. To escape familial turmoil, Billy hops on a freight train and settles in a small town. For his trip, he packs his school bag, cigarettes and alcohol, and says goodbye to his dog.
Billy gets on a train going west in a rain storm. He ends up at an old railroad town called Bendarat. He is a survivor and figures out how to find food and keep clean. His homeless condition is a status that he accepts, and yet he also prides himself with his street smarts, which enable him to survive. He meets and falls in love with Caitlin whose life could not be any more different from Billy’s homeless life. She is from a wealthy family and largely dissatisfied with her life. Billy also becomes friends with Old Bill, a homeless drunk. He shows Billy how to earn money.
Caitlin notices that Billy takes the leftovers off the tables in a McDonald’s and seeks to learn more about him. She has the menial job of mopping floors there. His compassion is a welcome change for Caitlin.
This is the third novel that Herrick has written in free verse. The chapters are marked by the characters’ names. In the eleven chapters, each chapter begins with a brief extract from one of the poems within the chapter. A black-and-white image appears with the quotation and captures the essence of the section. The free verse poems are told by the three main characters: Billy, Caitlin, and Old Bill. This first-person account brings a direct understanding of the experiences of each character and to each other. This lyrical format brings a musical quality to the relationships and expression.
The story stands as a metaphor for life within a challenging social and family structure—and the seamless way in which children often live their lives homeless without being detected.
The novel received favorable reviews noting its appeal for reluctant readers and its swift-reading style.