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Aussie YA Book Review: Steal My Sunshine by Emily Gale

Steal My Sunshine My Rating:                 5 / 5
Format:                     Ebook, courtesy of Random House Australia via
                                 NetGalley
Publication Date:      1st May 2013
Category:                  Young Adult
ISBN:                         9781742758497
Imprint:                      Woolshed Press
Extent:                       352 pages
RRP:                         AU$18.95


The Blurb

“Steal My Sunshine is a gorgeous read, full of mystery, history, hope and heartbreak.  I was gripped all the way to the bittersweet end – Simmone Howell, author of Everything Beautiful.

During a Melbourne heatwave, Hannah’s family life begins to distort beyond her deepest fears.  It’s going to take more than a cool change to fix it, but how cna a girl who lives in the shadows take on the task alone?

Feeling powerless and invisible, Hannah seeks refuge in the two anarchists in her life:  her wild best friend Chloe and her eccentric grandmother, Essie, who look like they know how life really works.

but Hannah’s loyalty to both is tested, first by her attraction to Chloe’s older brother, and then by Essie’s devastating secret that sheds new light on how the family has lost its way.  Even if Hannah doesn’t know what to believe in, she’d better start believing in herself.

Combined with Hannah’s contemporary story, at the heart of Steal My Sunshine is the revelation of a shameful aspect of Australia’s history and how it affected thousands of girls and women – the forced adoptions that saw “wayward girls” and single mothers forced to give up their babies by churches and hospitals.  The practice endured for decades, and only now are the numbers and the heart-wrenching stories coming to light.”

Summary and Thoughts

It all started over an argument about the Christmas tree on the last day of the school holidays during a stinking hot February afternoon in the midst of a Melbourneheat-wave.

Beginning with Hannah’s present day narration, we are introduced to this fifteen-year old girl trying to come to terms with the inner turmoil that threatens to overwhelm her as she tries to find her place in the world and her family.  Constantly in Sara’s firing-line, Hannah is at a loss to understand why the relationship between her mother and older brother, Sam, is so different to hers; why Sam so blatantly attempts to divert their mother’s attentions from her; why she is the only one who seems to care so deeply for her grandmother; and what’s up with her mother and father!

Arriving at Essie’s house, we are introduced to Hannah’s eccentric and agoraphobic grandmother, and unreliable narrator, as she plays a trick on her unsuspecting grand-daughter and grand-son, causing a tirade of epic proportions by Sara when she discovers what has taken place.  Afterwards, whilst making a cup of tea for Essie, Hannah comes across a hidden letter and, after guiltily reading it, asks Essie about “James”.  The conversation concludes with Essie whispering the promise of a secret.

Late for an appointment with her best-friend Chloe, Hannah heads off to meet the only friend she has, one who comes from a broken family, her mother having walked out when she was six-years old, never to return.  Living with her father and brothers, one of whom Hannah has a crush on, Chloe is mature beyond her years and believes that Hannah’s life is a fairy tale compared to hers.  Finding herself relating the events of the day to Chloe, when all she wants to do is tell her about the feelings she has for Evan, and looking forward to Tuesday night movies with her dad, Hannah receives a text message from her brother urging her to get home.  Arriving at home with a suitcase hindering her entry and a devastating announcement delivered by her parents, her life is thrown into further turmoil as the door slams on possibly the only ray of sunshine in her life.

As we see Hannah dealing with her inner struggles – the possibility of first love, her social ineptness, Chloe’s stand-offish attitude towards her and the family drama playing out since her father’s departure – her chain-smoking, gin-tippling grandmother’s narration begins at Chloe’s first visit with Hannah, and we are taken on a “disgraced” fifteen-year old girl’s journey from her wealthy family in fog-filled London, aboard a ship headed for Australia and an aunt who declares that she is unable to “save” her, to a convent where she is put to work in the laundry while she awaits the birth of her baby.  As Essie relates her painful past, a shocking familial relationship is finally defined, shedding light on Sara’s antipathy towards Essie and perhaps the relationship between Hannah and her mother.

A shameful part of Australia’s (and many other countries’) shadowy past is exposed as Essie’s in-laid narrative goes into vivid detail of the harsh treatment that many young “fallen” and “morally endangered” women, unsupported by their families, had to endure at the hands of the Nuns who ran the “Magdalena Laundries/Asylums” as well as the cruelty behind the victims being denied their fundamental rights to love and care for their children by being forced to go through the process of adoption, sometimes with their consent being obtained through forgery or fraud.

These stark revelations of a by-gone era brought a tear to my eye and resonated strongly with me as it brought to mind my own mother’s harrowing encounter when I was born to her in the early 1970’s in South Africa.  Seventeen and unmarried, a nurse at the government hospital where I was born attempted to convince my mom to allow her (the nurse) to adopt me.  My mom in no uncertain terms informed her that adoption was not an option that had ever been contemplated, nor would it be considered, and that she had every intention of taking me home, regardless of her personal circumstances.  The difference between my mother and Essie was that my mother has a very close-knit family who supported her during her pregnancy and that support would continue with much love in caring for me – after all, my nursery was already waiting for me at home, the cot, the pram, the layette, the christening gown, an assortment of cuddly toys, having already been purchased.

At one of the feeding times when my mom went to the trolley on which the cribs were brought through, she noted that I was not in my usual crib.  Beginning to panic, she approached the nurse and informed her that the baby in my crib was not hers.  The nurse merely replied that perhaps I had been placed in the wrong crib, but what she hadn’t counted on was the fact that an eternal bond had already been forged between my mother and I at my birth, at the very moment when I was laid over my mom’s tummy after delivery, and that while breast-feeding, my mother had memorised every one of my facial features, every hair on my head, all ten fingers and ten toes, and even the very smell of me was already deposited into her memory bank.  Informing the nurse that she had already checked all the cribs on the trolley and that I was definitely not there, the realisation must have dawned that my mother wasn’t just another “ignorant young girl”, but one who was most intent on taking her baby home, because she promptly went into the nursery and brought me back in her arms saying that perhaps one of the nursery staff had been working with me and forgotten to put me in the crib for feeding time!

However, the difference is that Essie did not have the support of a family, one which had abandoned her, and nor was she allowed to bond with her baby after the birth.  Even after she is reunited with her baby and runs away, she is ambivalent about this motherhood thing.  Her story broke my heart, but behind that story is another – one which will have you questioning how often these things happened, long after the last page is turned.

I really enjoyed this novel and found the split narrative and Emily Gale‘s frequent use of evocative analogies and metaphors – “I was a kid with a balloon and I’d handed it to the wrong person to hold on to.  Now it was floating up to the sky and out of sight” – worked well in conveying Hannah’s inner teenage angst in a real and effective manner.  When she finds herself in a situation where under-age sex is imminent, for a fifteen-year old, she deals with it in quite a mature manner and makes a sound moral choice and, while Essie’s deeper story touches briefly on issues of infidelity, incest – “It was me and Dad.  Unholy is why” – and lesbianism, it was the broader themes of “forced adoption” and society’s attitude towards women in the 1950’s to 1970’s resulting in the tragic consequences of a decision which should have been hers to make, which enraged me.

Steal My Sunshine is a lovely YA novel with a good moral message behind Hannah’s story.  Seen through the eyes of a teenage girl whose greatest desire is to belong and be loved, it is also an aching examination of one woman’s shameful deception and painful re-living of a time she would rather forget and another woman’s inability to forgive past transgressions and, in light of the recent historic national apology given by Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to thousands of mothers who were forced to give up their babies by enduring these cruel and sometimes illegal approaches by governments, churches and hospitals, it is a timely novel about the oft-called “White Stolen Generation” – one which will strike a chord with many present day Australians.

This is a novel which I feel crosses over between genres and will appeal to a broad range of readers from 15+ through to adults.

I wish to thank Random House and NetGalley for providing me with an e-copy of this novel.

A Little About the Author (taken from Random House’s website)

Emily Gale was born in London and worked as a children’s book editor for several years before going freelance.  She is the author of several pre-school books and a YA novel Girl Aloud, which has been published in the UK, Germany and the US, where it is called Girl Out Loud.  It was shortlisted for a regional UKaward and described by Jaclyn Moriarty as “powerful, funny, wise and true”.

In 2008, Emily and her Australian-born partner moved to Melbourne with their two children.  She has since worked on the Authors for Queensland charity auction, which raised over $20,000 for flood victims, and discovered new voices in children’s and YA for a literary agent.  She is now a children’s book buyer and bookseller at Readings.

Steal My Sunshine is Emily’s first novel with an Australian setting.

And another towards the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.


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