The house on the mountain, by Ella Holcombe, illustrated by David Cox


book coverAfter the recent summer of horrendous bushfire in Australia, with the TV news footage still frightening and fresh in our minds, this evocative story from the devastating February 2009 bushfires brings the human experience vividly to life.

During extreme weather conditions in the Australian summer of 2009, 400 individual fires across the state of Victoria resulted in 173 fatalities.  Many families were left homeless.  Saturday 7th February became known as ‘Black Saturday’.  Ella Holcombe experienced Black Saturday as a child in the bush.  This story is based on her own experience, but significant elements of her story have been changed. She explains how and why in a moving end-note.

The story is beautifully written.  At first, it seems like a straightforward and unaffected account of what happened.  On re-reading – and it bears multiple re-readings – everyday details build a picture of a creative, adventurous, happy family, with three children and their dog encouraged to roam free, secure in the bush craft their parent have taught them.  Just before the fire arrives:

Back home, we’re too hot to play anymore.  We lie on the kitchen floor, trying to catch grapes in our mouths…  Afternoon blurs into evening, and Mum keeps working in the garden while Dad heads to the kitchen.  He holds a glass of whiskey in one hand, wooden spoon in the other, stirring a pot of onions over the stove.  Music escapes through the screen door.

Powerful metaphor and simile slip unobtrusively to illustrate the devastation caused by the fire.

It’s like stepping into a picture book after all the colour has been drained out.  The trees that are still standing are nothing but spindly fingers, reaching up towards the sky…

On the drive back down the mountain I gaze out at the powerlines, some still stretching across the sky, some dangling like broken guitar strings.

After the devastation, in which the family lose their home, and some of their schoolmates lose their lives, our heroine describes her own state of mind, and vividly suggests the atmosphere of the school community:

There’s something inside me that’s bigger than fear or sadness – it has no words, no shape, and it twists and turns.

At school the teachers seem different and the kids are wilder, like dogs on a windy day.

David Cox’s illustrations add to the text, particularly in illustrating the fire: the enveloping heavy smoke, the flight of the wildlife, and the bleak strangeness of the post-fire landscape.

There is no dodging the tensions, grief, loss, worry, fear – but it’s told gracefully.  There is real sense of how much time has to pass in this distress.  But things do move on.  After some months, the family start the long work of renewal and rebuilding, aided by their community of friends.  Freedom is regained and happiness renewed.  The wildlife returns, and Mum’s plants show signs of regrowth, as green shoots peek through the charred earth.

Although Ella Holcombe’s real-life experience is bleaker, her trajectory through it is parallel.  She wants to give a message of hope, resilience and family.

I wanted this story to be about more than loss. Because family and home are bigger than that.  This is for you, Mum and Dad.  Thanks for letting us roam.


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