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Saturday, May 11, 2013

'Steal My Sunshine' by Emily Gale

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

During a Melbourne heatwave, Hannah's family life begins to distort beyond her deepest fears. It's going to take more than a cool change to fix it, but how can a girl who lives in the shadows take on the task alone? Feeling powerless and invisible, Hannah seeks refuge in the two anarchists of her life: her wild best friend, Chloe, and her eccentric grandmother, Essie, who look like they know how life really works. But Hannah's loyalty to both is tested, first by her attraction to Chloe's older brother, and then by Essie's devastating secret that sheds new light on how the family has lost its way. Even if Hannah doesn't know what to believe in, she'd better start believing in herself. 

Combined with Hannah's contemporary story, at the heart of Steal My Sunshine is the revelation of a shameful aspect of Australia's history and how it affected thousands of girls and women - the forced adoptions that saw 'wayward girls' and single mothers forced to give up their babies by churches and hospitals. The practice endured for decades, and only now are the numbers and the heart-wrenching stories coming to light.

There are two sides to the Moon family – Hannah and her dad on one side, her mum and brother Sam on the other. It’s been that way for as long as Hannah can remember; her and dad have their Wednesday movie nights, while mum and Sam share private jokes and pet cat, Scribble.

But when her parents’ marriage reaches breaking point, and it’s Hannah’s dad that leaves, she is completely unprepared for the fallout. Mum and Sam huddle together and lean on each other, while Hannah feels isolated and abandoned.

She has her best friend, Chloe, for a shoulder to cry on. But Chloe’s mum abandoned the family when Chloe was six, and she constantly reminds Hannah that things can’t be as bad as all that. Then there’s the fact that Hannah has a painful, obvious crush on Chloe’s older brother, Evan. 

That’s why she needs Essie now, more than ever. Essie is her mum’s mum, Hannah’s beloved grandmother – the only other person in the family who loves and understands her. Maybe it’s because Hannah and Essie have her mother in common – or, rather, neither of them get on with Sara Moon and are constantly in her firing line. She accuses Essie of lying and manipulating, and she thinks Hannah is lazy and ungrateful.

As her home life spins more madly out of control, Hannah starts visiting Essie more and more … particularly once she realizes how bad her grandmother’s health has become. But there’s also the fact that Essie has started telling a story, her story. And it might just explain why she and her daughter never got along, and why Sara seems to love her Sam so much more than her Hannah …

‘Steal My Sunshine’ is the new young adult novel from Emily Gale.

This year, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard apologized to the generations of women and children who were victims of forced adoption. Gillard apologized on behalf of the Australian Federal Parliament, for the hundreds of forced adoptions that took place in Australia from the late 1950s to the 1970s. These involved babies being taken from their mothers who, for various reasons, were seen as ‘unfit’ – babies were taken without consent, or mothers were compelled to give consent to the Australian State and Territory government agency. It’s impossible to know the exact number, but it’s believed a majority of babies taken were those belonging to single mothers –at a time when it was believed adopting out the babies of unmarried mothers was in the best interests of the child. 

In her March speech, Gillard said; “We deplore the shameful practices that denied you, the mothers, your fundamental rights and responsibilities to love and care for your children.”

And this is the heart of Emily Gale’s powerful novel, ‘Steal My Sunshine’ – about young girl, Hannah, who starts unravelling her grandma Essie’s harrowing story and how it still impacts on her own mother today. 

When the story begins, Hannah and her mother are already in the midst of a tumultuous relationship, which is further fractured when her dad walks out on the family. Sara Moon seems to have unrelenting anger towards her daughter, and nothing but affection for Hannah’s older brother, Sam. 

Maybe you really couldn’t force a family to work. How were you supposed to know when to stop trying? Mum had stopped with me, it felt like. Essie was the only one I had left. She and I were connected. I needed to know everything there was to know about Essie, and hold onto her for as long as I could.

But Sara Moon also despises her own mother – Essie. She constantly warns Hannah and Sam of Essie’s manipulations and lies, and she has in fact stopped visiting her altogether. It’s only Hannah who spends time with Essie now, and in the midst of her crumbling home-life and the discovery of a mysterious letter about someone called ‘James’, Hannah starts prying apart Essie’s lies to get to the heart of their family matters…

What Hannah discovers is Essie’s own part in Australia’s forced adoptions; as a teenage girl sent away from her London home, and forced to repent for her sins; 

Sister pushes the grey dress and blue apron into my arms again, and even while I’m putting them on I’m telling her, ‘You can’t touch me. I’m not from here. You can’t keep me. I’m not a prisoner.’ Not a single muscle in her face moves as I carry on. ‘Someone is coming for me,’ I cry. 
She’s like a statue, staring me down until I feel as powerful as the puddle of clothes at my feet. ‘You’ve fallen,’ she says. ‘And we are the only ones who will pick you up.’ 
She’s right, I’ve fallen into the bottom of the world. ‘Someone has to come for me,’ I whisper.

This book is harrowing and heartbreaking, brave and beautiful in equal measure. Gale picks apart an ugly chapter of Australia’s history with a deft and sympathetic hand, bringing these old wounds into a contemporary story that’s so important for young Australians to read and try to have a fraction of understanding about. 

What really struck me in Gale’s storytelling is that she very much presents this as a women’s tale – and there’s quite a visceral connection in that, a knowing that runs deep. It’s in the fact that while Hannah’s family life crumbles, and Essie’s story is being told, a news story has captured Victoria – a young girl (Hannah’s age) has been reported missing, believed to be abducted. There’s a hubbub made about this at Hannah’s school where one girl, greedy for the spotlight, cashes-in on her acquaintance-by-association to the missing girl, named Sophie.  As Hannah muses on Essie’s life; how she, as a teenage girl in the 1960s, was one day thrown into a Magdalene asylum, never to be heard from again – in the present day another young girl seems to have vanished off the face of the earth, and the worst is presumed. It hits home that this is a story about the abuses and injustices women seem doomed to always face. At one point Hannah muses that Essie’s story doesn’t mean as much to her brother, Sam … and her own father admits to not really understanding how this also affected his wife. I’m glad Gale touched on this, because it is a truth rarely acknowledged but so important in this book that really revolved around Hannah, Sara and Essie.

One small aspect that didn’t quite work for me was Hannah’s crush on her best friend, Chloe’s, older brother. Evan felt like an afterthought, and was a little out-of-step with the book. I actually think more interesting male relationships were presented with Hannah’s father and brother. And I was more curious about another man in her life; young drama teacher, Mr Inglewood. Not in a romantic way (though the other girls at school titter about him) but Mr Inglewood posed an interesting new male dynamic in the novel, and there was a moment when he confronted and pushed Hannah – provoking a most interesting reaction. For me, personally, in a book where the male characters worked more to illustrate what’s missing in the relationships of the females … I would have preferred more of the charismatic Mr Inglewood than the half-hearted Evan.

In ending her ‘sorry’ speech, Prime Minister Julia Gillard acknowledged the pain and suffering of those affected by forced adoption: "The hurt did not simply last for a few days or weeks. This was a wound that would not heal." And, indeed, ‘Steal My Sunshine’ is about what has not healed – wounds that run like fractures through time and family trees, secrets that poison and pain that never goes away. This is a beautiful and tough book, an important book for young Australians to be reading right now. 



  1. Oh my goodness, this sounds like a gutwrenching read! I really appreciate the historical/news context that you added for this book as well. (I just drafted a review where I had to pull some sources, so I know how much time it takes.) This book wasn't on my radar before, but it has caught my attention now. Thanks for this incredibly thoughtful review.

    1. Fantastic - I hope you get your hands on a copy!

      Thank you :)

  2. i love your review of this. you have talked about it so well. i really liked this one, too. need to get off my butt and actually review it...


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