‘Freedom Ride’ by Sue Lawson is a powerful historical fiction novel for ages 12+. A coming-of-age novel, it follows Robbie Bower, a white boy living in an unhappy home with his father and grandmother. It is set in 1965 in a small fictional town in western New South Wales, ‘A town of trees bowed by heat, grass sucked dry and dusty footpaths.’ (p 16)
In Walgaree, racial segregation is a way of life. The local Aboriginal People are served last, and not allowed in the Returned Servicemen’s League’s (RSL) club, despite many of them having fought for Australia. Barry, a local man who has returned from an extended stay in London, is one of the only townspeople to treat the local Indigenous People with dignity. He befriends Robbie and gives him a holiday job, which helps Robbie grow in confidence and self-esteem.
Robbie’s dealings with Barry and Barry’s mother provide him with the love and warmth that are missing in his own home. Over the course of the novel, the outside world comes into town, in the form of a bus full of student activists advocating for change. Secrets are exposed, and Robbie must choose between having the courage to do the right thing or going along with what everyone else says and does.
This is a fast-paced and emotional novel that deals with little-known historical events. Many Australians know more about the Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights movement of the United States than of the same struggle in their own country. This book would be an excellent cross-curricular text for English and History in Years 9 and 10 in Australian schools. Perhaps one day as many Australian students will have studied Australian novels, ‘Freedom Rides’ or ‘Jasper Jones’, as the American equivalent book, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’
‘Freedom Ride’ has received many awards as follows:
Short-listed, Older Readers, Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Awards, 2016
Short-listed, Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, 2016
Short-listed, Young Adults, Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, 2016
Short-listed NSW Premier’s History Awards, 2016