The fantastic story of a young girl who must run for her life because she has brought bad luck to her village.Classic adventure-fantasy by an author with a fabulous and original storytelling voice.
Julie Hunt lives on a farm in southern Tasmania and is fascinated by landscapes and the stories they inspire. This interest has taken her from the rugged west coast of Ireland to the ice caves of Romania. She loves poetry, storytelling and traditional folktales, and her own stories combine other-worldly elements with down-to-earth humour. Her picture books include The Coat (ill. Ron Brooks) and Precious Little (ill. Gaye Chapman). She's written a three-book series called Little Else about a plucky young cowgirl (ill. Beth Norling), and a graphic novel called KidGlovz (ill. by Dale Newman, who did the Scarlet Runner cover).
In Song for a Scarlet Runner, Julie explores an idea that occurs in many traditional stories throughout the world - the 'external soul'. A person's spirit is taken from their body and hidden away so they can never be killed, but eventually time and the laws of nature catch up with them.
To read the Song for a Scarlet Runner is to be drawn into a lyrical fantasy world, peopled by strong and sometimes very endearing characters. It is to visualise this world through a series of fantastic settings, and to follow the unfolding of a wonderful tale. Julie Hunt may not be a marsh-aunty, (although maybe she is!) but she certainly has the gift of the story-teller. For the benefit of her young heroine and her equally heroic readers she imparts the following three lessons of storytelling:
•First lesson: always open and close your stories.
•Second lesson: see the picture in your mind and the audience will see it too.
•Third lesson: don’t finish the story until you get to the end
As the stories in Song for a Scarlet Runner open and close and entwine around the story of Peat, the brave and feisty heroine, we see that Julie Hunt truly understands her art. Fleeing from the home she shared for nine years with her sister, Peat finds herself led into the marshes, into the path of Eadie, a mysterious marsh-aunty with a dark and sorrowful secret. Eadie is a healer and a story-teller, who teaches the art of story-telling to young Peat. She teaches her the story that will change all their lives forever.Beautifully written, Song for a Scarlet Runner would have equal appeal to girls and boys, especially from ages 10 to 13. It is a fine example of the fantasy genre, that does not include the darker elements present in much fantasy writing today, and is at the same time an intriguing examination of storytelling itself, and how it impacts on our world.
Jo McDougall, Geelong, Victoria
Nine year old Peat and her sister Marlie live on an isolated farm, tending their cattle and making cheese, far from the nearest settlement. Their aunt Wim makes infrequent visits to collect the cheeses and make sure the girls are OK. Routines are broken with the arrival of the stranger who gives Peat a focus for her yearning for adventure but, by carrying disease with him, causes Peat to be exiled from home.
There begin her adventures, through the marshes and meeting the marsh hags, especially Eadie and Mother Moss, confronting the Siltman and his captive, Siltboy and discovering truths about herself and her world. Each chapter is an adventure within itself, and for me, that is one of the strengths of the book for classroom use with the target middle-school readership.Hunt has created a wonderful cast of characters. Peat is consistently written, and an endearing personality, a mix of young and old head on young shoulders, and at times I had to remind myself that she was only 9 years old. That is perhaps a disadvantage as some readers (with the book aimed at ages 9-12) may be put off by having a heroine younger than themselves. There’s a wonderful collection of support roles. Sleek, the composite animal, (for me part otter, part cat, part fox and others) who fluctuates between being loving and supportive and vicious and standoff-ish. The swamp hags, all of whom have differing strengths and weakness, but especially Eadie who has the challenging ability to hear others’ thoughts and Mother Moss, the baker. Shadow, the great hound who ranges between being visible and a phantom. Siltboy, 900 years old, with his quaint language and mix of naivety and wisdom. Song for a Scarlet Runner is a typical fantasy and as such could be used with great effect in the classroom, especially as it is a complex yarn but one without treasure-seeking, fights and royal intrigues. Oral story-telling is integral to the structure of the book. The landscape is strongly presented. The themes are those that will appeal to the readers that this book is aimed at: friendship, familial love and the need to belong, truth, and finding one’s place in the world.
Students could be asked
•to deconstruct the story into the essential parts of a fantasy genre
•to create a story board of one of the events
•to create a bird’s eye map of the lakes and the marshes
•design new clothing for Siltboy
•tell one of Eadie’s stories or create one she might have told
•describe – visually and verbally – the contents of Eadie’s bag or coat
•research herbs used for medicinal purposes
•research whether any of the herbs in Song for a Scarlet Runner have ‘real’ counterparts
Maureen Mann, TAS
Peat and her older sister Marlie live at the Overhang, banished from their community. Their life consists of tending cows and making cheeses for their aunt to collect on her infrequent visits. Peat’s life changes drastically when they show hospitality to a stranger said to be carrying the ‘dying disease’. She has to leave her beloved sister and flee for her life and so begins a magical quest to get to The Hub, the centre of the world from which you can go anywhere. A small animal accompanies the 9 year-old Peat; she names him a sleek, but it behaves totally unpredictably leaving the reader to wonder if it is a friend or foe. Sometimes it saves her life and other times it steals her food or bites her leg.Peat meets many interesting characters along the way: the marsh aunties, each with a unique gift and a severe case of sibling rivalry; a 900-year-old boy and the Stiltman to name a few. Each character comes alive for the reader and adds intrigue to the story.Peat is given the gift of story-telling but warned: The important thing to remember is to open and close your story; otherwise she could be stranded in worlds unknown. The stories Peat learns and tells are included in the book and add an element of legend and life-lesson. This book is suitable for children nine years and older (315 pages). It would also be a good read-aloud as the book is a real page-turner, with vivid descriptive passages and interesting characters.
Nova Gibson, Massey Primary School
Song for a Scarlet Runner is set in a magical but rather bleak world. Julie Hunt offers us an amazing look at a world of ‘sleeks’ and ‘marsh aunties’, a world where story telling holds extreme powers, and we do wonder at Hunt’s own storytelling prowess as we gaze at the world she creates. However it’s not a pretty world.The main character, Peat, is blamed for a disease that a stranger brings to the village and has to flee the monotony of an existence milking cows each day with her sister to a life in the marshes. At last Peat meets the ‘marsh aunties’ with their strange rules and extraordinary skills, and is taken in by one of them (Eadie) to learn the art of storytelling. But as the story she tells unfolds we learn there is far more to Eadie’s story than a good yarn and a lot more to her than a safe haven on Peat’s journey. Eadie’s story takes on a scary reality and Peat finds herself not just a storyteller, but part of the story and again, fighting for her life, with only the mysterious ‘sleek’ for company.This is a truly imaginative story with an admirable protagonist set in a unique world. Peat has qualities that endear herself to readers – she is down on her luck but she is courageous and persistent, and truly cares for her sister. This story is not long but it may be a bit sad or grim at times, especially to appeal to much younger readers – Peat’s world is one of poverty, disease and betrayal and the themes in the book include exile and death and loneliness. While Peat inspires us by battling against these, for a lot of the book it just is not that happy and is not a book for everyone.
This story does bring up strong themes about betrayal, trust and the treatment of Peat by adults generally – Eadie, the marsh aunties generally, her own mother, Alban Bane; and the power of storytelling, not just as Peat learns it among the marsh aunties, but also the simple tale that is spread of the disease that has Peat running in the first place. These could be useful discussion points in the classroom. There is also a lot of emphasis put on Peat looking different and out of place; do these points sway your sympathy for Peat or make you assume certain things about her fate? What does this say about how we judge characters by their looks?
This is the story of a little girl who must fight her way through adversity from the day she was born. So many things weigh upon Peat and stand between her and happiness. Illegitimate and banished from her (non-) father's house, she lives with her mother (who soon dies) and sister in a lone house outside the village, herding cattle. But after giving directions to a disease-carrying stranger who passed through, she is forced to flee her furious (non-)father and begins her life on the run.[Spoiler warning] Peat has been either harmed or at best let-down by almost all of the adults in her life: her mother's cruel husband who chased her away; her mother who was too weak to look after her daughters; an auntie who means well but urges the child to run away; a colony of women who vie with each other to take Peat on as an apprentice, one of whom steals Peat away under the pretence of caring for her, but who actually betrays Peat as part of a bargain she made with a wizard to give up 'her child' in exchange for longevity; the wizard who keeps Peat prisoner; and many others who could have warned or helped Peat but were too weak or lacked concern to do so.The only characters who really help Peat are a capricious sleek (a small furry creature who alternatively steals Peat's food and yet scavenges on her behalf, scratches her and yet guides her to safety) and a fellow prisoner of the wizard who has been stuck outside of time for 900 years after he was betrayed in a similar way by his own father. As an allegory for a child's life, this book reminds us that some children face life in this way; your heart goes out to them and this story reminds you that you can't let it be that way. Perhaps there is room for discussing with readers what else these people could have done to help Peat, and how wonderfully she held her own through bravery and courage in the face of such adversity.
Themes for discussion:
•Peat is accused of being a bastard at birth because she doesn't look like her father but more like people from a neighbouring village.
•Peat is abandoned by many people, and yet she keeps going.
•Even those adults who do want to help are overruled by others who don't (and who are stronger). Does this make you wonder whether it is not worth asking for help, or is it always a good idea to ask for help?
•The only character who seems to truly understand Peat's suffering is one who has experienced the same himself (the boy captive of the Wizard). Is it possible for someone who hasn't experienced it to understand?
•An older woman had bargained away Peat's life in order that she, herself, could live forever. Peat fights for her own freedom and is told that she is right to do so, but she's also told that her freedom will lead to the older woman's death, a consequence which makes the choice harder, though it is still right.
•Peat has a final discussion with the older woman who is now prepared to die. She asks Peat to send her off in a skiff, and when it returns to the shore, she is gone.
The first few years of Peats life are mostly happy with her sister Marlie, their cows and their Auntie Wim. Then bad luck forces her to flee her village. Peat meets other characters along her journey but it is when she is caught in a trap set by a marsh auntie that the real trouble begins. Will she ever see her family again? Primary aged children will identify with Peat and the problems she has with her family. The chapter and heading format keeps the reader tuned into the story and waiting for what will happen next. Having seen which part of the story is coming next the reader doesn't want to put it down. The twists and turns of Peat's journey is surprising and makes the reader want to continue reading to see what is going to happen. The ending is unexpected but satisfying and keeps the reader thinking well after the last page has finished telling its story.The text and description is dense but not so dense that it is not available to good readers. It is not a light-hearted adventure but will interest both boys and girls. The adventure and the excitement will trap every reader. The descriptive text could be used to show readers how authors create pictures using words and encourage them to write similarly in their own writing.
Roxanne Steenbergen, Windermere Primary School, Tasmania