Once, Kate Forsyth and Krista Brennan, Wombat Books, April 2019
From the publisher:
A long time ago
My grandmother’s grandmother
Travelled far, far across the seas
Over the rim of the world to where the stars were new
Kate Forsyth tells tales of her ancestors’ lives in Australia in this beautifully illustrated picture book that celebrates the power of story. From the first perilous journey to a new land, to the great wars and civil rights movements, readers live through key moments in Australia’s fascinating history.
Over the Easter break, I visited my grandmother. She is ninety-two and has just recently moved into an assisted living centre. Still, she does not seem old to me. She never has. Even when I was a tiny child and she already had white hair, she never seemed old. She is, I suppose, a product of her generation. She was born in the ‘20s and lived through a war. She grew up in rural Tasmania. She worked in a tough job, in a time when women working professionally was still new and unusual. She had four children and her husband died when she was still quite young. She had no choice but to be indomitable. She had no choice but to carry on. And yet …
My nan has the most cheeky, childlike, imaginative eyes I have ever seen. She has a wicked sense of humour and a keen sense of fun. I see those same eyes in my daughter – the same shade of blue that skipped a generation with me. It is like a thread, connecting them through me.
Maybe it was partly this visit to my nan that made my reading of Kate Forsyth’s Once so deeply affecting. It moved me to tears. But, honestly, I think it probably would have done so, were in not still thinking about my nan and her life and her stories and the stories of all the women I know.
That is what Once is about. It is about the lives our ancestors have led, and how important they are, and how important it is that these stories live on. It begins with the narrator’s great grandmother, her childhood in (it appears) rural Scotland and her journey across the seas to another fierce, wild land in Australia. It follows the challenges she faces in this new world. It moves on to her grandmother, living through terrifying times during the second world war. Next, we see the narrator’s mother and her experience of the great civil rights protests of the sixties and seventies. And then we move on to the narrator, struggling to come to terms with the bewildering, fast-paced society we now find ourselves adrift in.
I connected with each of these women, through the power of Kate Forsyth’s storytelling ability – I still can’t believe she managed to capture all of these lives in what must be under five hundred words – and through Krista Brennan’s beautiful, whimsical, evocative illustrations. The pictures had a dream-like quality, while still managing to realistically depict the circumstances of each generation’s reality. I was completely transfixed by each panel and returned to the pages over and over, to drink in the gorgeous colours and all the wonderful detail in each one.
This is such a deeply powerful book – both visually and in its narrative. I will be buying a copy to send to my nan. I think she will love it. My daughter already does. Some things are able to transcend the barriers between the generations. Stories are one of these. And books like these also communicate to us so potently that the barriers aren’t really all that tall or wide or strong. They are as flimsy and translucent as gossamer thread.