Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, 419 pp, RL: TEEN

First reviewed 3/2/11, Melina Marchetta's Printz winning novel is stunning for the craft with which she tells this layered story as well as the complex, compelling characters she creates. Stick with it and you will be greatly rewarded - and need a box of tissues.

If you search the internet for reviews of Melina Marchetta's Printz winning novel, Jellicoe Road and read a few lines, you will know that this is a unique book that is difficult to write a review of. In her acceptance speech for the Printz (in which she says some really wonderful things about YA books and librarians, booksellers and bloggers) she thanks "Louis Sachar for writing Holes and giving me a lesson in structure." If you have read Holes (and if you haven't, you really should) and recall the two story threads that magically, beautifully became one, then you will love - and get - Jellicoe Road. If you haven't and you love Marchetta's work or just enjoy a great story with astounding characters and a non-stop plot, then read this book and give it a chance to unfold. 

The prologue begins with the most stunning first sentence I have ever read: "My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die." It goes on to describe a horrendous car crash that happened on the Jellicoe Road, a crash that wipes out most of two families, leaving only a brother and sister alive in one car and a girl in the other. Then, "a kid called Fitz came riding by on a stolen bike and saved our lives." The prologue as well as the rest of the story that follows these characters, the five friends, is always in italics and the reason for this becomes clear as the  story unfolds. Chapter one begins twenty-two years later with Taylor Markham, who was abandoned by her mother on the Jellicoe Road when she was eleven. Now seventeen, she has boarded at the Jellicoe School, a place for wards of the state and the occasional juvenile delinquent - there are currently five arsonists at the school - among others. Almost nightly, she dreams of a boy in a tree who whispers things to her. During the day, she sleepwalks through life, trying to avoid anyone or anything that will make demands on her. Her only lifeline is Hannah, the woman who lives in the unfinished house near the river. The school is made up of houses where the students, grades seven through twelve, live independently with teachers living in separate cottages from which they oversee them. Hannah helps to supervise Taylor's house and, as punishment or when the holidays come and she has nowhere to go, Taylor stays at Hannah's house and helps her to work on it. Sometimes Taylor gets detention just so she can spend time with Hannah. Taylor knows that there is something about Hannah or something that she knows that she is not sharing and the two have a stilted relationship because of it. Of run-in with Hannah, Taylor says, 

She stares at me. Hannah's stares are always loaded. A combination of disappointment, resignation, and exasperation. She never looks at anyone else like that, just me. Everyone else gets sultana scones and warm smiles and a plethora of questions, and I get a stare full of grief and anger and pain and something else I can never work out. Over the years I've come to accept that Hannah driving by on the Jellicoe Road five minutes after my mother dumped me was no coincidence. She has never pretended it was., especially during that first year, when I lived with her, before I began high school. In year seven, when I moved into the dorms, I was surprised at how much I missed her. Not living in the unfinished house seemed like a step farther away from understanding anything about my past. Whenever I look for clues, my sleuthing always comes back to one person: Hannah.

Most of this book is better left for the reader to discover, but  can tell you about one aspect of the story introduced in the first chapter and described in the blurb on the back of the book -  the territory war fought every year between the Townies, the Cadets and the kid's from the Jellicoe School. Against her wishes and the better judgement of the rest of the house leaders, the exiting seniors pick Taylor as the head of all the houses and General for the Jellicoe School in the territory war. Apathetic at first, Taylor gradually comes to accept her role as leader and begins to recognize that she is genuinely liked, maybe even loved and very much needed by the girls in her house.

As many people have said, the first few chapters of Jellicoe Road can leave you confused and rereading paragraphs. And that's ok. Stick with it because it will be even more rewarding when you do unravel the threads. As always, Marchetta will break your heart, with this story especially. Themes of family, families of friends, loss and grieving are present again and in a way that is sometimes overwhelming. Despite this, the drive to get to the heart of the mystery is unstoppable and I could not put this book down - except to blow my nose. I think the best thing I can do is leave you with these words spoken by the author herself as she accepted the Printz award for this book, which, in Australia was published with the title On the Jellicoe Road:

I’ve enjoyed the diverse opinions on the blogs. I love the fact that young readers have bullied their parent to persevere with Jellicoe, rather than the other way round. I’ve even loved receiving letters saying: “Dear Ms Marchetta. I just love your novel On the Jellioce Road. My friend hates it and my teacher doesn’t understand it.”

I’ve read the words “Your story hurt my heart.” 

I’ve read the words, “Teenagers won’t be able to access this novel.”

Those are the words I worry about the most. I’d like to think that it’s challenging, but very accessible. I receive more letters and feedback from teenagers about Jellicoe, than any other. Their favourite part isn’t Taylor and Jonah’s love story, as I thought it would be. They mostly write to me about the community created by the five friends of the past. The community created by Taylor in the end when she stops being reactive and becomes proactive and begins collecting her own people.

I know some people have a thirty page rule. I wish they didn’t. I’d like to think there are so many wonderful surprises on page 31 of someone’s story. I’d like to think that the first line of a novel doesn’t make sense if you haven’t read the last. That they may discover that I’ve written a story about something more than territory wars between Boarders and Townies and Cadets.

For me, Jellicoe Road is a story of love between people, regardless of gender and age. It’s about the mistakes adults make for all the right reasons. It’s about redemption being possible in the most tragic of circumstances. It’s about girls challenging the boys they love and swooning when one tells her the extent of her importance in his life; and it’s about boys fighting the battles within the territory of their hearts. It’s about staying individual and still belonging to a community. It’s about pointing out the beauty of wonder in the midst of ugliness.

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