Reviewed by E.B. Heath
‘Her mother had told her how the trees shaped the forest – the karri, among the world’s tallest, and the tingle, with its massive girth, one of the largest. She told her that their bark hid spiders with sixty-five million years of history.
‘There are secrets and legends far older than any recorded history,’ she said. ‘In an old language, this was called the Kumakana – it means the place of the great beginning. As far as forests go, this one is about as old as they get’ (5-6).
Lavender Jensen, a determined thirteen-year-old with a vivid imagination, has been told so many times by her father that the ancient forest Kumakana ‘is full of unexplored areas and very dangerous’. But Lavender is fascinated; she is convinced that, from the margins of the forest, magpies study her. She thinks they are conjuring spells.
“Their tree – and those surrounding it – rises like a column in the rampart of a great fort, forming part of a landscape that sits idly, waiting, as the crackle of their leafy crowns tosses whispered incantations to the winds, passing on the myths and legends of dark days and forgotten languages. Lavender’s mind had no escape from this bush bewitchery.”
Through a series of mishaps Lavender meets Jerramunga, a brave indigenous boy, and they manage to get hopelessly lost in this forbidding setting. They have no idea of the hazards that await them.
The primeval forest, Kumakana, is on the brink of devastation, feral foxes and cats are threatening the native animals – the Natural Order is in danger of collapsing. The gronups, spiritual custodians of all animals and birds and defenders of the Natural Order, hold crisis talks; they must find ‘a turning point’ to save the forest. A prophecy points to the two lost koolongers (children) as the ‘turning point’, but their spirits must be tested.
In the genre of magical realism and adventure, Kevin Price transforms the majestic Valley of the Giants of southwest Australia into the mysterious space of Kumakana. This magical setting supports myriad native lives as well as the delightful gronups, whose otherworldly spirit is captured by Judith Price in black and white illustrations. Referencing the birds and animals in a local indigenous language adds to the esoteric atmosphere, through which the reader senses the music and spirit of the forest. The finely-focused descriptions complete the readers’ transportation into Kumakana; it becomes their new reality.
Kevin uses humour as a device to personify the animal characters. Apt names illustrate their nature, like Carker Barker the ruffle-headed royal spoonbill, who speaks in spoonerisms, giving comic effect even in the most serious of circumstances, or the gangster style of Don Canida, the fox leader, and of Eddie Vulpré his second in charge. Boo Ragoon, and thirteen other young pelicans attempt to douse a bush fire and a scene of slapstick ineptness ensues. The communication barrier between human and animal dissolves as Kevin skillfully embeds the reader into their world and their struggle to survive.
Ultimately, the plot hinges on the spirits of Lavender and Jerramunga. Kevin illustrates the growth of his young human characters as the fast moving narrative unfurls. They are tested by life threatening events and in this they develop and grow strong. Lavender’s determined stubbornness together with her overly active imagination becomes a vital asset in her survival. Jerramunga’s bravery was always present but he comes to understand that he carries a wise and ancient spirit. Together with all the native species and the gronups, Lavender and Jerramunga encounter conflicts of epic proportions. These issues easily translate through literary devices, such as metaphors and allegories, to real world issues – the extinction of precious species, the greedy use of land, the absorption of refugees and the need for willingness to share culture, particularly with the ‘Originals’ (indigenous), so that the ‘Enterers’ (non-indigenous) can better manage the land. This novel does not talk down to young readers, the vocabulary is rich and the issues are deep, but carried lightly by a narrative that is exciting and comical.
There are only a few anomalies. The page numbering detailed in the contents is incorrect by 13 pages; it seems the title page and introduction have been included as the first 13 pages, whereas chapter one actually starts on page one. Also, it might be nice to include an apostrophe in the title – A Gronups’ Tale, perhaps? The inclusion of a word and character list in the appendix was most helpful; photocopying the word list before starting will save the reader flipping back and forth. But indigenous words are included with a few author inventions, and distinguishing which is which could be confusing. Perhaps the denouement is a little sketchy; after the conclusion of a harrowing struggle the reader is given only two pages as closure. However, none of the above detracts in any meaningful way from this engaging novel.
The scope of imagination Kevin Price demonstrates sweeps the reader into belief – belief in magic, belief in imagination, and belief that there is a ‘turning point’. Kumakana is intended for young adult readers but is equally suitable for the aged and jaded, who are willing to let go their beliefs, to hope, and imagine better ways. Kumakana is a profoundly Australian novel with global themes and universal appeal.
By Kevin Price
With illustrations by Judith Price
Crotchet Quaver Press