4 out of 4 stars
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Natalie Chapman is sixteen going on seventeen, and nothing in her life is easy. Half Aboriginal, she faces racism and is an outcast at school. Her stepfather is an abusive alcoholic and holds an especially nasty grudge against her. Her family’s living conditions are poor, and Natty takes it upon herself to support them. Even her one safe haven, the home of her employers, becomes a source of trouble for Natty.
Ironbark Hill is a wonderfully written coming of age story that describes one year in the life of Natalie Chapman. Jennie Linnane shows mastery of language and rhythm, as her descriptions flow beautifully and are punctuated with clever turns of phrase. Early on, as Natty describes her villainous stepfather, she states, “Alex and Patience were strangers.” I love the way Linnane plays with words and allows the reader to truly feel Natalie’s emotions and places us solidly in her world.
As a protagonist, Natalie herself is very likable. She is courageous and rebellious, but she is not without fault. Throughout the story, there were times I was cheering for her and times I felt disgusted with her. To have a protagonist be so layered is a gift to readers, as it is so easy to relate to someone with good qualities who also makes plenty of mistakes. Natalie has dreams and ambition, and she sees her role in the family as a protector and provider; however, none of that stops her from falling prey to temptation. Her decision to leave school and work to provide for her family is a noble one, and her employer, Mrs. Glover, becomes a professional mentor to her. But then Natalie allows her romantic feelings for Mr. Glover to take over. As a reader, I want to shake Natty and warn this teen not to cause herself more trouble in the one place that could help her escape. But on the other hand, I can relate to the fact that her romantic feelings (not to mention burgeoning teenage hormones) cause her to be swept away.
The other characters in the story are drawn equally well. Natalie is tied to her family and is very loyal to them, despite the problems they have. While her stepfather Alex is her main nemesis, she adores her mother and is protective towards her younger siblings, including the difficult Shirley. Her grandfather is another personal hero to her and she views him as a tie to the past that she doesn’t really understand, as no one talks about the circumstances surrounding her father’s death. Although it is not always easy to live with her family, Natalie’s sense of responsibility towards them rings true, and it is easy to understand her feelings towards them.
One of the few things I disliked about the story was the ending. Towards the end of Natalie’s sixteenth year, there are some satisfactory incidents which allow her life to become a bit easier. She is willing to make a sacrifice to protect her younger brother, and karma seems to intervene. The result is gratifying for the reader, but as the story moves on into the epilogue, it was a bit disappointing to me. I hoped that Natalie would overcome all her hardships and escape her home life to become someone important. Her adult life is less glamorous than that but it is probably more realistic, and she seems satisfied with the way things played out.
I gave Ironbark Hill 4 out of 4 stars. The story was interesting, and I found the protagonist to be compelling. Most of all, the language and writing were excellent. I didn’t notice any errors and I felt the style really reminded me of classic novels. I feel anyone who enjoys this type of flowy, descriptive writing, and coming of age stories, will love this novel.
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