Get a Grip, Cooper Jones by Sue Whiting is set in Wangaroo Bay, with the ocean on one side and the Australian bush on the other. This is a familiar setting for me as I grew up in Orbost in East Gippsland which is on the coast of Bass Strait and close to several national parks as well as bushland.
Being near to the Australian bush means the threat of bushfires is a fact of life. It is a terrifying threat but as kids we did not see it that way. We would watch the red wall of fire approaching our house with a sense of anticipation and excitement. In joyous awe we would shout out its proximity to each other.
“It’ll get to us before lunch time.”
“It’s sure travelling fast.”
I was especially impressed by the vibrant tones of red, orange and yellow that swept across the sky.
Of course, an adult’s perception of bushfire is quite different. Our parents, although appearing calm, must have been anxious and watchful. Just how distressing the threat of bushfire is to people who live through it was brought home to me in 2009 when I toured the Black Saturday communities of Murrindindi shire in October that year. Sadly, I was also deeply aware of the loss and pain many of these communities suffered.
Sue Whiting’s story is set against the backdrop of the threat of bushfire. Cooper’s mother does not take the threat seriously and, much like my siblings and me, seems oblivious to the danger. Although Cooper seems more alert to the peril than his mother, as a swimmer with a fear of the ocean his personal fears are, for him, as intimidating as the fear of being caught in the approaching fire.
Arriving at the teens can be a turning point for many children. One minute life is fun and carefree, the next it is fraught with tensions, life changing decisions and confronting issues. In Get a Grip, Cooper Jones, we meet thirteen-year-old Cooper at this turning point in his life. As the township heats up with summer temperatures soaring and the bushfire looming, so does Cooper’s life.
Cooper doesn’t have a father and has never given the idea of a dad much thought until a chance remark sends him on a quest find his unknown father. His relationship with his mother becomes tense and he meets a new challenge when Abbie, a gorgeous new girl in town, moves in next door. Too close for comfort, she stirs intense feelings in young Cooper. While he is struggling with an identity crisis without a father figure, Abbie is struggling with issues of identity for different reasons. It is his feelings for Abbie that force Cooper to face his fear of the ocean when she is in urgent need of help. With the bushfire blocking access to the outside world on one side, Cooper’s only option is the ocean.
The book’s humour, language and terminology give it a distinctly Australian flavour; a flavour I find most enjoyable. Sue Whiting’s Get a Grip, Cooper Jones is a fast paced, easy to read book for the upper primary and lower secondary school age group.