The house on the mountain by Ella Holcombe

cover image

Ill. by David Cox. Allen and Unwin, 2019. ISBN: 9781760636968.
(Age: all) Highly recommended. Themes: Fire, Disaster. A family living at the top of the mountain swelters under the heat of summer. Mum closes the windows and pulls the curtains across but outside is just the same as inside. The fan blows hot air around, but during the night with the radio turned up, the phone rings and Mum says they must all get out, a fire is coming.
The year is 2009 and the place is near Kinglake in Victoria, the scene of one of the worst fires in Australia, killing 173 people, along with thousands of hectares of farms as well as towns, pets and livestock. The day is now known as Black Saturday and Ella Holcombe's parents were killed in that fire.
Presenting a picture book about the fire and its devastation, Holcombe sidesteps the tragedy of her family's loss instead making her story about a family which survives, revealing the same heartache and loss that she suffered but within the scope of a picture book. In this way she makes her story universal, able to be discussed by younger readers  who will glean lessons from that fires, and recognise strategies they can use. McLean's images swirl around the family, intensifying the feeling of destruction that fire brings. Overwhelming heat, relentless wind, and darkness envelop the family as it flees the fire, learning several days later that their house is gone.
They get to the community centre in their local town, there to be safe, and eventually go to live with their gran who lives at the base of the mountain, until it is safe to return to their house block. There they set up two caravans determined to rebuild, and watch in awe as the bush regrows and friends come to help.
A story of confidence in the future, of survival, of rebuilding and regrowth, the story does not dwell on loss, but it is in the background with some children not returning, of photos of those who died in the school hallways, and homes and animals destroyed.
MacLean's atmospheric illustrations reflect the awe filled nightmare of those days, the blacked out sun, needing the car lights on going down the mountain, the black outlines of the trees, the smoke and flames, all drawn with a still, hazy fuzziness. He perfectly captures the fear of groups of people, the family, their longing to get back, and those who offer support.
It is ten years since this appalling fire, and children will rad the book with a heightened knowledge that fire is an ever present danger, its prevalence increasing through climate change, and be aware that plans must be in place for people to remain safe. An opportunity is here for adults to rehearse their fire plan with children, and bring their attention to strategies to keep them safe, while reading a story which shows the devastation fire brings and the long slow process of rebirth and recovery.
Fran Knight