SALT RIVER TIMES by William Mayne


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Or, time and the Salt River as they flow through an Australian town--restructured in a form that is old hat in adult literature but still uncommon, especially when so coolly executed, in children's fiction: flash forays into the separate consciousnesses of seemingly unrelated individuals gradually converge like jigsaw-puzzle pieces until an interrelated community comes into view. The separate flashes are more or less intense, here-and-now experiences: the only chapters that view their characters from the outside are two featuring a banal, bickering adult couple played for comic effect; the other chapters all feature children. If this non-guided cutting about might lose some unambitious younger readers, adults might feel uneasy with Mayne's unsentimental, unfudging, and unmoralizing views of the children. Mean Gwenda specializes in throwing stones at things and people, and the book ends with her unredeemed, harboring more stones and vicious schemes. Kate, about her age, collects bits of people--scabs, for example--and longs for a bone. The thoughts of not-quite-right Morgan, another of the younger ones, are an incoherent scramble. His early, unidentified sounds and furies add to the general sense of disorientation--as do the dreamlike middle-of-the-night encounter with birds experienced by an older boy, Joe; another, lighter scene in which Joe and a friend are trapped in a Russian-rite church procession; and, for good measure, a further mixup involving uncanny lookalikes. The plot doesn't come into focus until it's well under way, and even then recedes behind the separate scenes. But there is a story--indeed, a mystery, broached in the very beginning by an old woman's ""hundred year old"" memories of a flood, a murder, a treasure, and a ""Chinaman's"" boat. Gradually these images come together with other elements: the wooden ""sea serpent"" Gwenda retrieves from the river, Joe's two Chinese grandfathers, and even the bickering couple whose burning mattress, cast out during another overwhelming flood, leads Joe and his two pals to the long-lost boat. In it they find the ""murdered"" ""Chinaman"" (not murdered after all but drowned, which dears the grandfathers of suspicion) and the fabled treasure, now only enough money to buy a good meal for the lot at a Chinese restaurant. For alert readers, Mayne develops the mystery with tantalizing wiles and orchestrates the confluence of lives past and present with glittering finesse.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Greenwillow