Eleven-year-old Mitch feels a little out of place when his Fly In – Fly Out (FIFO) dad’s behaviour becomes erratic. Mitch makes friends with an ailing magpie, whom he names Maximus, and they heal each other.
This inventive novel deals with themes of self-esteem, family love and first love with tenderness and skill. It draws on Steve Heron’s long experience as a worker with children. Steve, the founder of the BUZ programs (Build-Up Zone) for primary-aged children, has written before, but this is his first full-length novel for children.
I enjoyed it. Be-friending a magpie is obviously drawn from experience. The book contains a brilliant description of an inter-school football match.
Maximus means ‘the Greatest’ in Latin, and Steve shows the journey to greater self-esteem in a way that will appeal to middle- and upper-primary readers.
I am a friend of Steve’s and a former colleague, and I am proud to commend this engaging story.
61 years ago on the veranda of the Infants’ Class Room at Tambellup School, I called Valma Eades ‘a black boong’. I remember the year precisely because the Infants’ (Year I) Room was separate from the rest of the school, and I sought out Valma on the veranda. This veranda was up two steps from a bitumen path. I was a skinny five-year-old white boy, and Valma must have been seven. She loomed over me.
But where on earth did I find the expression ‘black boong’? It was not a term that our family used. I think I had heard the town kids whispering it, and I wondered what the reaction would be if I used it directly on an Aboriginal person, so one play-time, I sought out Valma Eades and I called her ‘a black boong’. Her reaction was instant and strong. Her fist landed under my jaw and lifted me off the veranda into the air. I landed on my back on the bitumen path.
In that instant of painful encounter first with Valma’s fist and then the hard bitumen path, I learned that Valma was right and I was wrong. Even though I was only five, I learned that it was wrong to use racist names against Aboriginal people. Even though issues between children should not be resolved through violence, in this case, Valma was right to give me a swift, sharp lesson.
You see, I lived on a 4,000 acre (2,000 hectare) family farm that until 100 years before had been the summer range of Valma’s great-grand-parents and their family group. On our farm was a freshwater lake that we called Lake Toolbrunup. Each year for forty, maybe fifty thousand years until just the end of the 19th Century, large groups of Noongar people had gathered at Lake Toolbrunup at the end of summer to enjoy its water,the freshwater crayfish they called ‘gilgies’ and cool shade. Now it supported our sheep.
How this farm had come into the possession of our family, and the white people from whom we had bought it, neither Valma and I had any idea.
Valma, on the other hand, lived with her parents and brothers and sisters in a canvas tent, 6 foot by 4 foot, on a reservation on the edge of town. A trough at the end of the line of tents boasted one cold water tap between two tents. Their only heating in the bitter Tambelllup winters was an outdoor wood fire. To keep warm, kids burrowed into the sand near the fire. Valma’s mother cooked over this fire.
There were Aboriginal children at the Tambellup school who camped with their families on our farm, as on other farms. They lived in tents and brush shelters. Their diet was kangaroo, sheep and damper. We knew, vaguely as six-year-olds, that the feared Mister A.O. Neville, Protector of Aborigines, had prescribed the places where Aboriginal families could live and who they could live with.
However this exchange of land had taken place, Valma and I were brushed with this history. There was unfathomable sorry business between us. And this history was, and is still, inscribed on every Australian girl and boy. None of us can escape the fact that we live in the shadow of a gigantic land swap.
White Australians booing Adam Goodes is always wrong, just as calling Valma Eades ‘a black boong’ was always wrong. And if Adam Goodes is strong enough to stand up and fight back, it hurts, just as Valma Eades’ uppercut hurt. So it should.
The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Saint Matthew (Chapter 2 beginning at the 13th verse):
Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,* he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
The Gospel of our Lord: Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
In the name of God the Creator, who was born a human being, and lives among us as Spirit. Amen.
“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he became enraged. He sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and throughout the surrounding region from the age of two and under.” (Matthew 2:16)
The shock of a psychopath in power. In the 20th Century, Stalin behaved something like Herod. The sad thing is that we remember the psychopath and not the names of his victims. Dmitri Volkogonov writes,
“Stalin personally signed 357 proscription lists in 1937 and 1938 that condemned to execution some 40,000 people, and about 90% of these are confirmed to have been shot. At the time, while reviewing one such list, Stalin reportedly muttered to no one in particular: “Who’s going to remember all this riff-raff in ten or twenty years’ time? No one. Who remembers the names now of the boyars Ivan the Terrible got rid of? No one.” “
King Herod would resonate with that sentiment.
Mao Tse Tung reportedly killed 45 million people in four years. The records are carefully catalogued in the Public Security Bureau, and researchers can read about the violence Mao ordered and permitted, including deliberately starving the elderly to death because they couldn’t work efficiently. But scholars don’t write critically about Mao: it seems that the Chinese don’t want to face these horrors.
From what I understand, people also tried to forget Herod “the Great” as quickly as humanly possible.
Stalin, Mao and Herod. Eight children murdered by their mother in Cairns. A siege in Sydney by an unhinged Iranian. The horror of it all seems to have set out to spoil our Christmas. We want Christmas Day and the Twelve Days of Christmas to be Lazy, Hazy Days of Summer without a care, yet, with the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the church sets a trap for us three days after Christmas.
Christmas can easily become a fantasy, especially in our consumer-laden culture. People travel hundreds of kilometres to view Christmas lights, and where communities have some success with colour and light one year, householders compete with each other the next year to be brighter and more spectacular than their neighbours. Cummins, a little town on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, turns its RSL hall over to a Christmas Wonderland. Carols by Candlelight have become so commercial and so un-focused that I can no longer watch them or join in.
These sparkling displays at Christmas empty Christmas of meaning. And I know that conflict, the conflict between Christmas and Yuletide, has been going on for nearly two thousand years, so I’m not going to win that. But I do know that the Feast of the Holy Innocents is a necessary corrective for us each year. It shocks us out of a fantasy Christmas world back into the real world.
It points out again where God’s concern is in Christmas: not in the cute superficialities of new babies, but in the pain of child-birth, the challenge of poor families, the survival – or not – of refugee families.
God knows the name of each of the boys under two in Bethlehem and the surrounding region who was killed by Herod’s men. God knows the name of each peasant murdered by Ivan the Terrible. God knows by name each of those massacred by Stalin and Mao. God cares for each, as he cares for each of the children killed in Cairns, and weeps over their mother, Mersane Warria.
God can name 141 Pakistanis, 132 of them children, less than two weeks ago in a school in Peshawar.
· Hamza Ali, 14 years old. Dead.
· Farhad Hussain, 15. Dead.
· Hamayun Iqbal, 14. Dead.
To God, the 141 killed last fortnight and the 41,000 Pakistanis in total killed by terror since 2001 are all beloved individuals.
God mourns for the lost lives of Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson killed in Sydney; and unlike the tabloid press, God does not count Man Haron Monis as monster, but as a human being; he was damaged, disturbed, dangerous and responsible for his crimes; but still of immense value simply because he is a human being, God’s image in him marred and spoiled – as it is in each one of us.
So on the third day of Christmas, the church invites us to gaze compassionately on the horrors of the world. It takes courage, and sometimes it’s a little easier when we know that the victims are Holy Innocents.
We take seriously that God has taken human flesh, God became man in Christ. This means that he gazes through our eyes. God uses us to see. We are called upon to look with clearer focus; to be able to gaze without flinching on horror, and to allow Christ’s compassion to flow through us.
Some rather wonderful things happen when we allow this compassion to gaze through us: it transforms what we see.
First of all it turns victims into treasured human beings; we see them not just as people that happened to be in the way, but in Bethlehem as Jacob and Paran’s and Eliab and Naomi’s little boys, or in another massacre as someone’s lover, someone’s daughter, someone’s friend, someone’s father.
Secondly, this compassionate gaze shows Herod up for what he is – just a petty angry little man, not deserving the title of king. It shows that his values are bankrupt. We will have to deal with Herod as an individual, or someone does, but he is not the king he claims to be. In this story, we see clearly who is the king, who has the values of strength and love and care for his people – and that is God. The real claimant to the throne, not just of Israel, but of our lives, is revealed. God cares.
You may know the story Elie Weisel told of the men hung during the holocaust. As one boy struggled at the end of a rope, with the crowd being forced at gunpoint to watch minute after minute, a voice cried out, “Where is God in all this?” A man pointed to the struggling boy, and said, “There he is.”
God is in the midst of the pain and suffering. That is simply a re-statement of the Christmas message that God has come to live among us. Wherever there is pain and suffering, God is in the midst of it. God is in the outpouring of grief in Martin Place. God is in the fierce anger of the Pakistani government and people. God is in the bewilderment of the community in Cairns.
This God, the God who cares about our suffering, about our human condition, comes to surprise us at Christmas.
There are shepherds and there are wise men. The shepherds struggle. They struggle to make a living looking after the sheep of someone else. They struggle through long shifts in the cold and wet. They are tough, but life is hard. God’s news comes to them first, because God comes to share our struggles.
The wise men are learned astrologers. They know what is wondrous and amazing. God’s news comes to them too, because the coming of God as human being to share our suffering is wondrous and amazing. We are not learned astrologers. We need to be told over and over again.
God has become a human being and shares our suffering however horrific; and God with us is wondrous. Shepherds and wise men were there on the Third Day of Christmas. Glory to God in the highest!