A Survival Story of Michael and Natlik by Peter Comerford, Austin Macauley Publishers, 2022, 146 pages. Available here from Booktopia in Australia, $18.95 paperback, $7.15 ebook
TUMBY BAY - I don’t remember when I learned to read. I know it was before I started school so I must have been fairly young.
I clearly remember a book based on the 1953 Walt Disney film of JM Barrie’s 1904 West End play Peter Pan or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. I would have been five at the time.
I also remember other books I read as I got older, including The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean published by Scottish author RM Ballantyne in 1857.
And later William Golding's 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, which was written as a counterpoint and parody of Ballantyne’s book.
The reason I mention this is because I’m trying to place Peter Comerford’s new children’s book into context, both in genre and who it might appeal to in terms of age and gender.
Disaster strikes in the form of a boating accident and Michael is forced to depend on his own skills to survive.
The book is also about the relentless efforts of his uncle’s faithful household servant, Natlik, to find him.
At one point Michael makes the counterintuitive decision to leave the place on the coast where he has found food, water and shelter to cross the mountainous and jungle clad island seeking help.
This doesn’t make a lot of sense because his instincts should have told him to stay close to the place where he made it to shore and where people searching for him would probably look.
The crossing, however, provides much drama, and this may have been the author’s intent.
Although not stated, the book has a colonial feel to it with Australian plantation owners and their house servants. (Except on the very last page when a computer appears.)
Of course, none of this will bother an enthusiastic 10-year old looking for an entertaining yarn.
And this Peter Comerfield has given us. The book fits neatly into the boy’s own adventure genre pioneered so long ago by RM Ballantyne.
As for the possible age range, I reckon I read Coral Island when I was about 10, so 8-12 is probably pitching about right for this book.
Peter is a retired teacher, a headmaster no less, who taught in Papua New Guinea from 1970 to 1990, including in New Ireland where the book is set.
His experiences and his profession has enabled him to provide an authentic and charming ‘colonial days’ feel to the book.
I hope today’s 8-12-year olds will sit down and read A Survival Story – or maybe have it read to them - because it’s not only a well-constructed story with a consistent narrative but is imbued with a clear, positive message about interracial relationships.
In reading the book, and thinking of my own grandsons, I began to wonder about the extent to which children read for leisure these days when there are so many competing attractions.
Research shows that a majority of children still enjoy reading (and also enjoy being read to) until things drop away when they reach high school.
In an Australian survey, about half of the children aged 6-17 said they were currently reading a book “for fun” and another 20% said they’d just finished one.
Some 77% of girls and 65% of boys said they would read books at home five to seven days a week, and three-quarters were also card-carrying members of their local public library.
Furthermore, and this is great news, they tend overwhelmingly to talk to their parents about the books they are reading. There are some interesting statistics here.
A Survival Story will make a great gift for young children and as a work of literature Peter Comerford brings it to a natural and satisfying conclusion that will please a child of any age.
Other books by Peter Comerford