Steven Herrick’s The Simple Gift was published in 2004 by Simon Pulse. The story focuses on Billy, who is sixteen years old and living in Australia. Billy’s father is abusive. To escape familial turmoil, Billy hops on a freight train and settles in a small town. For his trip, he packs his school bag, cigarettes and alcohol, and says goodbye to his dog.
Billy gets on a train going west in a rain storm. He ends up at an old railroad town called Bendarat. He is a survivor and figures out how to find food and keep clean. His homeless condition is a status that he accepts, and yet he also prides himself with his street smarts, which enable him to survive. He meets and falls in love with Caitlin whose life could not be any more different from Billy’s homeless life. She is from a wealthy family and largely dissatisfied with her life. Billy also becomes friends with Old Bill, a homeless drunk. He shows Billy how to earn money.
Caitlin notices that Billy takes the leftovers off the tables in a McDonald’s and seeks to learn more about him. She has the menial job of mopping floors there. His compassion is a welcome change for Caitlin.
This is the third novel that Herrick has written in free verse. The chapters are marked by the characters’ names. In the eleven chapters, each chapter begins with a brief extract from one of the poems within the chapter. A black-and-white image appears with the quotation and captures the essence of the section. The free verse poems are told by the three main characters: Billy, Caitlin, and Old Bill. This first-person account brings a direct understanding of the experiences of each character and to each other. This lyrical format brings a musical quality to the relationships and expression.
The story stands as a metaphor for life within a challenging social and family structure—and the seamless way in which children often live their lives homeless without being detected.
The novel received favorable reviews noting its appeal for reluctant readers and its swift-reading style.
The Simple Gift
2014 (originally 2000), 205p
Copy courtesy of the publisher
Billy is sixteen and is about to voluntarily become homeless. Life with his abusive father has become more than he can bear and one night he packs some belongings into a backpack and leaves his home and dog behind. He attempts to hitch at first, not having much luck in poor weather and ends up riding on a freight train heading west.
He ends up in the town of Bendarat where his days begin to follow a pattern. He sleeps in a disused rail car at the train station siding yard and each day he treks to the library where he reads. He bathes and washes his clothes in a river. And every night he heads to the local McDonald’s where he buys a lemonade and then forages for pickings families leave behind.
Old Bill lives in the railcar down from Billy’s and it doesn’t take long for Billy to befriend the hobo, taking him breakfast and cups of tea despite Old Bill’s initial reluctance. Old Bill tells him about work at the cannery and to his own surprise, finds himself fronting up for work with the kid as well. Slowly, Old Bill’s story tumbles out of him, how he came to live the life he’s now living and the grief and heartbreak that drive him to drown his sorrows.
Caitlin is the daughter of wealthy parents and has only known privilege. She works at McDonald’s of her own choice and finds herself intrigued by the boy that comes in each night who clearly has no where better to be. They strike up an unusual friendship, the three of them. The rich girl, the homeless boy and the hobo.
The Simple Gift is a YA novel by Australian author Steven Herrick written in verse. It’s being reissued this month by UQP books after originally being published over a decade ago. I’ve only read one novel in verse before and I was a bit ambivalent about it so I wasn’t quite sure how I would feel about this one. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised how well the medium conveyed the story and how much I came to enjoy the three characters and their relationships.
Billy’s depiction of his home life is never graphic but it doesn’t need to be. In fact apart from his leaving, I think there’s only one scene in the book that showcases what his father was like and how he treated Billy. The fact that Billy would actively seek out homelessness, in all its uncertainties is telling. However, Billy is also exceptionally lucky, that really does have to be addressed. If you’re going to run away from home, then Billy’s adventure is pretty much how you’d want it to go. It starts off pretty dismally with him attempting to hitch in the driving rain but from there it picks up as he experiences the true reach of human kindness. In Bendarat he finds a warm, safe, dry and free place to sleep where he remains unmolested for the duration. However this seems to only add to the story – that you can find the best of the human spirit even in some of the worst situations.
Although I was interested in Billy and his situation, my attention was quickly diverted by Old Bill and what had happened to him. Upon first meeting he comes across as a gruff drunk, someone who has probably reached the point of no return. As his story slowly unfolded it was both heartbreaking and easy to believe. He wouldn’t be the first to have turned his back on a comfortable life after tragedy, perhaps believing that he doesn’t really deserve his easy home and life. At first Bill is sort of reluctant for Billy to shoehorn his way into his life – you can tell he’s been alone for a long time now and that’s the way he prefers it. He keeps the memories locked tight away and he passes the days in a fog of nothingness. But Billy is friendly and persistent and he and Old Bill are both beneficial to each other. When Old Bill has a chance to help Billy, he takes it without hesitation, giving the younger man a real chance to make something of himself and escape the situation that he has found himself in. Billy is smart and well behaved, the sort of boy you can place your trust in. He’s wise for his years and he has ambition. It’s perhaps a little neat, a little easy but it’s still a beautiful story.
I found less interest in Caitlin’s story and her connection with Billy but I will say that it was quite refreshing to have the rich girl not be a mean stereotype. Caitlin is compassionate and quite well grounded. She doesn’t see anything beneficial about having everything provided for you. She chooses to work at McDonald’s to save her money for her future so that she can be independent. She’s very down to earth and accepting of other people – she doesn’t bat an eyelid when she invites Billy for dinner when her parents go away and he turns up with Old Bill in tow.
As I mentioned, I’m unfamiliar with novels written in verse having only read one before this but I certainly enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. The three characters blended so well together and the sparse word count didn’t detract from the story and I was able to fully picture it in my mind. I’d definitely read another Steven Herrick book – I saw Black Painted Fingernails on a few blogs a while back so I might start with that one and go from there.
Book #11 of 2014
The Simple Gift is book #1 of my Aussie Author Challenge for 2014. This one ticks a lot of boxes: new to me author, YA genre, unusual delivery (verse).
Also counting this one towards my Literary Exploration Challenge 13/14 and ticking off the Poetry category. That’s two novels read for this challenge so far this year and 20/36 over all.
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Tags: ARC, Aussie Author Challenge 2014, Book Reviews 2014, Literary Exploration Challenge, Poetry, Steven Herrick, The Simple Gift, Verse