As a kid born and raised on farms all around Aotearoa, author Bren McDibble can speak with some authority about growing up on the land. While she now lives on a house bus that travels around Aussie, her roots are clearly, and proudly, rural. That grounding speaks strongly through the theme of this ecological apocalypse she has created, which serves as a dark backdrop to this story. It comes through in her proposition: that a ‘all-too possible’ fungus could wipe out all the grass and starve our livestock. This, in turn would bring down the whole farming model and impact on our entire food chain and eventually our eco-system. It’s a familiar scene.
Food is scarce. So, humans are reduced to become scavengers and are helpless to fend for themselves, having abandoned their skills following mass production and corporatisation. It’s a bleak new world. Think of the movies Quiet Earth, Mad Max, I am Pilgrim and so on. Desolate, wiped out. The connections to the great Irish Potato Famine are also pretty obvious, too. Except this time, immigration will not solve the issue. In this world adults are useless, and powerless, having become slaves to supermarkets, the internet and their electronic devices. They fall into are petty habits, squabble and join tribes to survive instead of rallying together. They are ultimately selfish and self-serving. Therefore, it’s up to the kids to save the day. It’s a book that comfortably sits alongside other YA authors like John Marsden.
With the help of their five big ‘doggos’, our heroes Ella and Emery must use a dry-land dogsled to leave the security of their inner city apartment and navigate their way through rough terrain to reach the relative safety and food of Emery’s mum’s place. Ella’s dad has disappeared. Emery’s mother works for a power company, and holds a vital job managing this precious resource from a remote location. She does it reluctantly, under pressure from her employer. It’s never really explained but she must remain at work, separated from her family, inexplicably obligated carry out her tasks for Orwellian masters. The parallels to Soviet Bloc utilities is not overlooked as the power splutters on and off, exposing a decaying, cracked network.
The kids must escape their urban prison and venture out into these new wastelands. Along the way, they encounter a range of difficult characters, who challenge them is many ways. I don’t want to provide spoilers but again, think of those characters in the Mad Max movies, with fewer guns.
The story throws you straight in, with little need to explain the setting or situation and then drops plot hints, like a trail of breadcrumbs, to keep you going. It’s told from the first person, with Ella holding the camera as she pans around revealing her world and every step she must take. We are teased along, even as Ella and Emery get further and further away from their crumbling city. From time to time Ella breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the reader. This is partly a reassuring inner dialogue, and a popular mechanism for YA fiction. The way it’s written, Ella could be either a boy or a girl. Her voice has no defining gender, beyond a name. It means the reader doesn’t take sides, and can empathize with these challenging circumstances.
Given climate change this scenario is a real threat and given we are so reliant on grains for basic food and feeding livestock, it’s a problem we, as humans must consider seriously.
But it’s not all gloomy. With the same adventurous spirit as Blyton’s The Famous Five, MacDibble revels in the pursuit of adventure. The story is fast-paced, there are fraught hideaways, difficult puzzles and dubious foes. These kids are fierce and brave, like farm kids, and creative and innovative. They see every problem as an opportunity.
Once again, MacDibble delivers a thoughtful and provoking read. Her first novel, How to Bee, also had an ecological them, examining our world without bees, which has become more of a very real threat over the last few years. This book takes a few more steps into oblivion, visualising not only a world where grasses and grains are wiped out but asking questions about what would replace these vital food sources.
Both teachers and parents should recommend this to upper primary school readers and return after to spark a wider conversation. It was also be a great one for further classroom study.
Reviewed by Tim Gruar
The Dog Runner
by Bren MacDibble
Allen & Unwin