Jackie French, Christina Booth (ill.). The Day I Was History. National Museum of Australia Press, 2007. ISBN: 9791876944551
You don’t really expect to cry reading kids’ books, do you? In my defence, it was late on a Friday night after a wine or three at the end of a long and stressfully-annoying week. And the kids’ book is about the 2003 Canberra bushfires.
I don’t want to overstate my experience of the day. I was scared and confused but, as it turns out, never really in danger, although it was hard to know at the time. The neighbours and I hosed our houses until the water pressure cut out. We listened to radios in the front yard, the car packed hurriedly and crazily with just enough room left for me and the dog.
In the end we didn’t have to flee, although I slept for a bit that night in my boots, the car keys and Dog’s lead beside the back door. For the next few days, with no gas or electricity, I pretty much just sat on the lounge and listened to 666 until the radio’s batteries ran out and I had to go out for more.
The thing that still makes me weepy about that time is not so much the fires themselves, but the extraordinary generosity and kindness that was demonstrated everywhere. Big things and small. The morning of January 19 the little supermarket near me at Rivett opened, with no electricity, to make sure people could get what they needed. The staff stood at the front door, took your request and went off with torches into the shop to get it for you, so that customers wouldn’t stumble around in the dark. Calls went out on the radio for generators needed at some location or other. Half an hour later they would have to announce “No more generators! We have enough!” Geoffrey Pryor’s 20 January cartoon, City Without a Soul, encapsulated those days, and I still can’t look at it without crying. The only place online I’ve been able to find a reproduction of it is in this curriculum kit from the National Museum of Australia. Look for cartoon 7D at the top of page 10.
The Day I Was History brings all of that back for me. This book is part of the National Museum’s “Making Tracks” series, which engages leading children’s authors like French to tell stories through objects in the Museum’s collection. What an interesting selection this one is. As the endpapers of The Day I Was History explain, the story draws on
a fire-damaged wheel and hub from the ACT Fire Brigade truck Bravo 3. The truck was destroyed in the 2003 Canberra bushfires, when the crew was forced to abandon it in the Canberra suburb of Duffy.
Not your traditional choice to tell a story about life in Canberra. French does wonderful work encapsulating that extraordinary, ordinary day. She traces the warning signs that many of us didn’t believe on that otherwise normal Saturday, the building anxiety of not knowing what was going on, or where loved ones might be, the rallying of the Canberra community, and the slow and lingering realisation of loss.
The Day I was History begins with Sam encountering the wheel on display at the Museum:
It was like I’d been knocked flat even though I was standing up. It was like the bushfires were back in my head, like they are in dreams sometimes. And this old lady, well, older than Mum anyway, came up and said, ‘Are you alright?’
There is a two-way conversation going on here. Not only does the Bravo 3 wheel hold a story, but it also draws from us our own stories. And that is one of the most important jobs of a museum, and also of a book. As Sam realises, “we’re all history, all the time. We just don’t know it.”