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This website is dedicated to the memory of Jessica Lincoln Smith, a John Marsden fan.
Lost tragically at 26, but never to be forgotten.

Tomorrow, When the War Began
Book 1 in "The Tomorrow Series" by John Marsden

WARNING: Blows the plot of this novel
Please don't read on if this concerns you

"Tomorrow, When the War Began" could have very easily been a chest thumping, racist, jingoistic diatribe, supporting the worst paranoid fantasies of Australia's far Right. A sort of Autralian novelised version of the very B-grade US 1984 teen flick,"Red Dawn".

But it is not.

The author has gone to a lot of trouble to make sure it isn't, for that isn't what "Tomorrow, When The War Began" is about. This isn't a novel about a war, it is a novel about how eight very ordinary teenagers respond to a war.

Sure, there is heaps of action. It is after all an adventure story, told with verve, pace and suspense. It is very well written and in such a style as to be accessible to the young reader without talking down to the older. But there are many such novels and while this is part of why it works so well, there is more to it than that. Much more.

Fundamentally it is a character study, delving into the shock and stress of war, looking at the mess it makes of people's minds, looking at how people respond. John Marsden's greatest gift is in characterisation, particularly of teenage characters. In this novel he creates eight teenagers, breathes life into them, puts them in a situation of extreme stress and then writes down what happens. "Tomorrow, When the War Began" and its sequels is that record.

For me at least it is this second layer that is by far the most interesting.

There are four things that set this novel apart:

  1. The powerful characterisation: The characters in this novel could be anyone of us, any group of young people in any western leaning country. They are people you can relate to. They start out as fairly stereotypical examples of youth, but they are drawn with a great deal of sympathy and care by the author. They are very human, very believable, very ordinary. Then their lives are smashed apart and they are forced to respond, to change, to grow and to adapt. By the end of this novel most of the stereotypes have been reversed and the characters have come a long way from how they started out – yet each is still recognisable. All through the novel you are immersed in the characters feelings, their uncertainty, their fears, their hopes, the drama of what they are experiencing Once again this is done in such a way you can suspend disbelief and go with the flow. The characterisation is so well done that Ellie, Robyn, Fi, Homer, Chris, Corrie, Kevin and Lee can become real for the reader, and you can relate to them as you would real people. They draw you in.

  2. The situation: The situation is one of absolute desperation, it is also believable – not logically – but emotionally. Maybe it would be better to say it is imaginable – the invasion of your country – the destruction of all you hold dear – the devastation of your life, of you hopes, of your dream. There is a passage in “The Dead of the Night that covers what has happened and its emotional impact very well indeed. After all this sort of thing has happened several times recently – invasion of a country by an oppressive and aggressive enemy - Bosnia, Croatia, Chechnya good examples - why not to us or to any other country? (well there are good reasons why not to Australia, but that does not matter at the level of an emotional reaction to the situation). “There but for the grace of god, go I …”. It makes you think.
  3. The large areas left to the reader's imagination: Written strictly from the point of view of Ellie, the narrator, and covering nothing she does not know personally, "Tomorrow" leaves great areas just sketched in for the reader to flesh out in their imagination; from what the other characters are really feeling to more distent events. The reader becomes a participant in the story, creating their own image of what is going on around and with the characters.
  4. The technical excellence of the writing: John Marsden is an excellent writer and puts together a ripping yarn, using a well crafted mix of humour, affection, tension, suspense, action, caring and fear. I did find the first 50 or so pages a bit slow, but they built the characterisation, and from Ellie thinking “The dogs were dead” till the end of the novel, the pace was cracking.

Tomorrow, When The War Began” is a record written by Ellie, the teenage daughter of sheep and cattle farmers, and it opens with her reasons for writing. I could paraphrase but I think it is best in her own words: “I know writing it down is important to us. That’s why we all got so excited when Robyn suggested it. It’s terribly, terribly important. Recording what we’ve done, in words, on paper, it’s got to be our way of telling ourselves that we mean something, that we matter. That the things we’ve done have made a difference. I don’t know how big a difference, but a difference. Writing it down means we might be remembered. And by god that matters to us. None of us wants to end up as a pile of dead white bones, unnoticed, unknown, and worst of all, with no one knowing or appreciating the risks we’ve run.” (p2)

Right away we see how desperate their situation will come, but also how desperate for approval they are, especially Ellie. They have the very human need to be appreciated, to be respected, even if only after they are dead. Through out the whole series they act half from a feeling of responsibility and half from a desire for approval, for appreciation. Time and time again this need comes back - this very human need - till the bitter end.

After that opening it is obvious this is not going to be your normal teenage fair, but then Ellie takes us back to the beginning, to before the war, to the start of their camping trip, seven teenagers off for a week in the bush without adult supervision. Ellie, pushy but nothing special; Robyn, serious; Kevin, typical rural; Lee, introverted; Corrie, friendly; Homer, larrikin; Fi, delicate.

The trip is nicely drawn, and very necessary for later character development, but the novel really starts to come into its own when the group returns home to find their homes abandoned, their dogs and stock dead, all the people, all the adults gone. With no one to turn to they start to panic, to rush this way and that as they try to discover what is going on. Then, as they start to work out what has happened, to try and deny it.

Faced with the first of the great shocks that will confront them time and again through these novels, other aspects of their personalities start to emerge, they start to protect and support each other, they start to grow. Those who have kept their heads (Robyn and Lee) convince the others not to panic and then Homer, who events are rapidly transforming from school prankster to serious leader, comes up with a plan to confirm what they fear. Ellie, who will eventually emerge as one of the most powerful characters in Australian fiction, essentially just tags along, overwhelmed by what has happened. Once of the nice things about this novel (and again, about the series) is how fallible the characters are. As they start out, all have their problems, they all have trouble coping and the lead swaps around as each finds something to contribute.

As night falls they split up to investigate and Ellie’s transformation starts. She comes to a point where she has to take a significant risk and: “That was the first moment at which I started to realise what true courage was. Up till then, everything had been unreal, like a night-stalking game at a school camp. To come out of the darkness now would be to show courage of a type I’d never had to show before, never even known about.

A small single movement was my key to finding my spirit. There was a tree about four steps away, in front of me and to my left, well inside the zone of light from the Showground. I suddenly made myself leave the darkness and go to it, in four quick light steps, a dance that surprised me, but made me feel a little light headed and proud. That’s it! I thought. I’ve done it! It was a dance of courage. I felt then, and I still feel now, that I was transformed by those four steps.”

She is indeed transformed. Within the hour, she finds the strength to kill as pursuers corner them. The next night she kills again to rescue the wounded Lee.

In the aftermath we see the real power of these novels. Ellie is no Rambo and neither are her friends. They are just ordinary kids trying to cope with a world gone mad. Ellie is shattered by what she has done and struggles to cope, supported and helped by each of the others, as she has helped them. It isn’t enough and Ellie collapses internally as they retreat to their bush camp and start to prepare for what could be a long war. As Ellie slowly recovers mentally and Lee physically, the web of feelings and relationships that tie the party together is wound ever tighter.

Eventually they have to face a critical decision. Hide, surrender or fight ? Together, terrified one and all, but bound by love for their families who are prisoners, they choose.

They will fight.

They split into two groups, one to attack, one to continue to scavenge. The attack group, Ellie, Lee, Homer and Fi plan what to do; they plan carefully and successfully. Homer is the undisputed leader of this group at this point, with Robyn the leader of the scavengers. Ellie has yet to fully come into her own. They analyse where the enemy’s critical vulnerabilities are, Homer comes up with a plan and they strike successfully. Very successfully.

The book looks like it is going to end with a triumph, but this is not Hollywood and the ending is much more poignant as the attack group returns to find the scavenger team have struck disaster. Much more powerful than the standard “happy ending”.

Quite a lot for a novel of less than 300 pages.

For another view of this novel, check out Declan Stylofone's review
and also Tim Chmielewski's

Go to the commentary on "The Dead of the Night"


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