In its essence, The Simple Gift, explores belonging as a personally transformative process intrinsically linked to the development of conscience and identity. -? In Billy, Herrick has created a character who journeys from a psychic and physical space of dislocation and isolation to a space of attachment and community. -? However, Herrick provides an intricate tapestry in which ‘belonging’ via connection to others is only possible once characters acknowledge their connection to their own self: their conscience and their identity. -? In this sense, The Simple Gift is story of self-? healing and self-? enlightenment as we watch the novel’s protagonist, Billy, come of age. (The verse novel plays on aspects of the bildungsroman genre). -? The verse novel is written in the first person allowing the reader direct access to the characters’ thoughts and as such, fostering his or her connection with them. -? The use of the first person also authenticates each of the characters making them more likable and understandable. There is little emotionality in the characters’ voices and as such, we are able to more authentically ‘observe’ the characters and form more meaningful judgments about hem. This allows the reader to engage with the text more openly and encourages our attachment to it and its characters. -? -? Herrick also avoids overly poetic language in order to render the authentic voice of the characters and avoid distancing his reader. He makes the novel distinctly Australian via the use of vernacular, sense of place and direct references by the characters. In doing so, the reader copyright©ecriture2011 1 understands that he is commenting on how a young person may negotiate experiences of belonging in this particular context. -?
Motifs and symbols (keys, windows, rain, gifts, food, water, hands, ouses) are littered throughout the novel as Herrick signposts the important moments of the characters’ journeys of self-? discovery and belonging. Context -? In an interview on his website, Herrick provides information regarding the context of the verse novel. He stayed in a disused railway carriage in Ballarat when he was young, travelling around the country. He remembers it as very warm and comfortable and was struck by how secure it felt (thus introducing the importance of place in the novel’s treatment of belonging). -? Herrick says that during this time traveling he felt a sense of freedom and had a ‘very relaxed ife. ’ Importantly, this feeling of freedom bought with it a feeling of security and connection (to his experience and the people he met). Despite the transient lifestyle (representative normally of dislocation), Herrick felt at peace. -? You may argue that in recreating this setting and this experience in The Simple Gift, Herrick is revisiting or attaching to a time he associates with security, self-? worth and freedom. -? However, this experience is juxtaposed with that of Billy’s (which is less secure albeit transformative) and this juxtaposition suggests Herrick’s comment on Australian society today. Billy’s family reakdown and social isolation suggests broader social issues. -?
When he was writing the book, Herrick says he was listening to Bruce Springsteen’s CD The Ghost of Tom Joad which included a few songs about middle-? age men searching for something to give their life meaning. The word ‘redemption’ became important to him and he says, “the word certainly came into play in how I created the character of Old Bill. ” copyright©ecriture2011 2 -? He also says that “the notion of the spiritual versus the material is something that informs a lot of my writing” and we note that the characters in The Simple Gift are most connected hen they eschew the material or imbue it with meaning as an act of benevolence (eg. Old Bill gives Billy his house but the gift is most meaningful as a symbol of belonging). -? The novel was published in 1996 so it provides a snapshot of rural Australia at the end of the 20th century. We sense that Australian rural life is still insular and provincial. For the town of Bendarat, Billy represents a tolerance and openness which is foreign and therefore threatening (‘Tonight and the night after,’ 21). -? There is little sense of the wider world in The Simple Gift. o Why do you think this might be? Setting -? Herrick says: I very rarely have a strong plotline. I like to create location, then characters and see what happens. ” He has spoken of his own travels through rural Victoria and the fact that he used these places as setting for The Simple Gift. -? There is clearly a connection Herrick has with rural Australia as it provides a prominent backdrop in all of his novels. He demonstrates an appreciation of the decline of Australian rural life (‘Rich town,’ 48) and sets Billy’s journey of self-? belonging and attachment against this backdrop. -? Longlands Rd: inhospitable, isolates and rejects, no security, emotionally and physically hreatening, Billy describes it as living in ‘a dump, not even fit for a dog to live in’, ‘home’ but without any domestic trappings, (‘Champagne,’ 2; ‘Longlands Rd,’ 4). -? Wentworth High: hostile terrain, no sense of connection and no attachment (‘Wentworth High School,’ 5). copyright©ecriture2011 3 -? Westfield Creek: physical beauty and comfort, contrasted with his home life, birds representing freedom, where Billy indulges his interest in reading which provides both a comfort and an escape, mirroring the alternate reality his surroundings provide (‘Westfield Creek,’ 6). -? See the discussion of spatial belonging nder ‘Themes. ’ Characters Billy -? Billy is the novel’s anti-? hero. Herrick says his books have anti-? heroes who do something little, which is of great value (eg. give friendship and hope to a hobo).
For Herrick, heroism is the simple gestures done by ordinary people in a quiet, unobtrusive way and to commit these acts requires compassion and respect. -? In part, Billy’s character seems to speak of the increasingly alienated and disaffected youth of today’s regional Australia. (This is in contrast to Herrick’s own youth as he discusses it). However, Billy represents an important moral voice which stands out in this ontext. He is mature beyond his years and understands the insidiousness of materialism and the impact this has on social values and community. -? Billy’s maturity and morality cause him to connect with those on the fringe of society. He not only understands them but, in fact, seeks them out as he understands that their choices have enabled them a freedom which he covets (‘The hobo hour,’ 44; ‘Old Bill,’ 46; ‘That bloody kid,’ 68). -? In the verse novel, we experience Billy’s journey towards self-? belonging. Billy recognizes something important in Ernie, the train driver who offers him warmth and food. Ernie is not nly a contrast to his father, Billy also recognizes that Ernie is a better person that he is and this recognition marks Billy’s passage to a new world and a new identity. copyright©ecriture2011 4 Old Bill -? Old Bill provides a contrast to Billy in name, age, family circumstances and life choices (he lost a family unwittingly, Billy walked away, although both have chosen a life of homelessness). -?
The metaphoric role of the family in the novel is accentuated in Old Bill’s character. We come to understand that family is not simply about blood ties and familial love, which is shown to be illusive and fragile. Rather, in he novel, family is created via the exchange of ‘simple gifts. ’ -? Domestic belonging is intrinsically linked to self-? worth and self-? acceptance. In order to punish himself for losing his family, Old Bill removes himself from society. The breakdown of his familial belonging causes him to reject his attachment to his domestic space, severing his spatial belonging simultaneously. While he passes the family home onto Billy, he is still unable to inhabit the familial space he knew. That connection no longer exists for him and he understands that he cannot recover or reconnect to the space he associated with family and ove (‘Billy’ 149, ‘Old Bill’s long walk,’ 130 to ‘The neighbours,’ 138). Caitlin -? Like Billy, Caitlin provides another important moral voice in the verse novel. While she is aware of her background and the social privilege she represents, she is unaffected by this and is able to recognize the operation of social expectation and material forces (‘Caitlin,’ 79; ‘Dinner,’ 97) -? Caitlin is also seeking belonging. She is attracted to Billy because of his apparent independence (‘Lucky,’ 98) as this encourages her search for her most authentic self. In turn, this enables a fulfilling attachment between them both. -? For
Caitlin, Billy is everything her own world is not. His kindness, his gentleness and his openness provide for Caitlin an alternative picture of belonging. copyright©ecriture2011 5 -? -? Note the contrast between when Caitlin and Billy’s first ‘sleep together’ (‘The picnic,’ 85) and Kate’s first sexual encounter (‘Grateful,’ 81). Caitlin’s self-? discovery is important in the novel as we are able to compare it with Billy’s. She learns that social and financial privilege is less important that experiences of authentic connection. Billy has never experienced privilege, quite the opposite, and understands that living in a isused train carriage can provide comfort in a meaningful sense. Caitlin learns and accepts this by the end of the novel. ‘I was a complete fool/and maybe I was more spoilt/than I thought. ’ Themes Spatial belonging -? The changes in setting through the verse novel can be mapped against the changes Billy undergoes in his experiences of attachment and security – both in reference to the physical space itself and the people who inhabit it. -? Spatial belonging is an important aspect of the novel. Billy’s psychological experience is dictated by the places he is forced (Longlands Rd) or chooses (Westfield Creek, Bendarat
Library, ‘Lord of the lounge,’ 23; ‘Motel Bendarat,’ 26) to inhabit. -? While Longlands Rd and Wentworth High are marked by alienation and dislocation, Bendarat offers Billy an ambivalent experience of belonging. He is rejected when he enters town (‘Tonight and the night after,’ 21) and yet establishes meaningful connections both to place and to people (‘Lord of the lounge,’23; ‘Caitlin,’ Chapter 3; ‘Hobo hour,’ Chapter 4). -? -? The train journey plays an important role in linking spatial belonging in the novel (‘Freight train,’ 8 to ‘Another crossing’ 17). While place appears to be an external entity to which we attach