six: the secrets of eromanga by sheryl gwyther
The Secrets of Eromanga by Sheryl Gwyther
Lothian Books (Lothian Junior Fiction), 2006
review published in VATE Newsletter, no. 3, June 2007
Middle school readers will enjoy their ramble through the fields of Mitchell grass and fossil digs with twelve-year-old Ellie in Sheryl Gwyther’s Secrets of Eromanga. Savage dogs, kidnappers and dirty tricks abound. This adventurous dual narrative charts Ellie’s holiday fossil hunt alongside the life journey of the small ornithopod dinosaur in north-western Queensland. Although separated by millions of years, both females face challenges and uncertainty in their lives on the Eromanga Plains. Their shared courage delivers a thrilling conclusion to Queensland author Gwyther’s first novel.
Ellie, crazy about fossils and dinosaurs, is excited to be joining her Dinosaur Club friend Tom and his palaeontologist parents on a fossil dig north of Winton. The first intrusion to her plans comes in the form of a more sophisticated girl – an old friend of Tom’s – on leave from boarding school. Peta is a spiky, indulged character who hinders Ellie’s plans to forge a closer friendship with Tom. Peta’s actions, from Ellie’s viewpoint, are selfish and vain. But Secrets digs beneath the surface to reveal the bones. Ellie realises she has judged Peta harshly and feels remorse over her apricot face cream prank. Even the villains discover that anything worth having has to be mined layer by layer, not taken with subterfuge and force.
As in many well-loved young adventurer stories, adults are peripheral characters. The girls are left alone at Lark Quarry despite reports of interlopers, and Ranger Joe turns up after the action is all over. Themes explored include friendship and personal fortitude. In the end, the ornithopod is sacrificed, allowing her siblings to escape, and Ellie shows bravery (and dog chews) to escape the villains. Their shared adventure and passion for fossils cements the girls’ friendship at last.
Gwyther’s descriptive text illuminates our landscape. The ox-bow lake had low sandbanks, allowing smaller creatures to wade out into the shallows away from the churned-up muddy edges. She provides a fascinating insight into palaeontology as the young people dig in their quadrat and record fossil finds. Older readers interested in Ellie’s scientific discoveries could be directed to Bronwyn Blake’s Carrie’s Song from Lothian YA fiction – in which the female protagonist studies desert mammals in the Northern Territory.
As actual events in our rich Australian history are layered with a fictional tale, media reports could be sourced to extend a class study. With its uncomplicated style, the text would be well placed on a wide-reading list. In a connected curriculum it could accompany studies in Australian history, prehistory, desert areas and places of geological significance. Secrets’ rugged cover features a photograph of an ornithopod’s footprint from the Winton Shire. Young readers will follow the stampede to uncover the Secrets of Eromanga.