John F Kennedy’s famous quote ‘If not us, who? If not now, when?’ is the perfect epigraph – sitting alongside the words of Greta Thunberg – for the latest YA novel by Mark Smith, If Not Us (Text Publishing 2021). Smith is known for his Road to Winter trilogy of young adult novels which feature strong protagonists in a dystopian setting, books which are studied in schools all over Australia. If Not Us again features intelligent young people, set very much in the here and now as they battle the establishment over the timely and relevant issue of climate action.
Smith is a climate activist himself but what sparked this story was the passion of today’s young people concerning climate change and their informed determination to make a difference through direct action, such as the School Strike 4 Climate rallies.
Set in a small coastal Victorian town which for decades has been economically and socially supported by the local coalmine and power station, If Not Us centres on 17-year-old Hesse who is at that awkward liminal age between adolescence and adulthood, with all the complicated angst around relationships, identity, school, plans for the future, friendships and ties with family. Hesse’s mum Imogen is a member of the local environment group which has spearheaded a five-year campaign in support of closing down both the mine and the power station, despite opposition from many locals, especially those who receive funds for social and sporting clubs from the large organisations, and those who work directly in the industry, whose jobs will be at risk if the status quo changes. In a sort of ‘accidental hero’ scenario, Hesse unwittingly becomes a spokesperson for the group, but as he learns more about the reality of dirty power and the risks to the environment and to people’s health, he decides to take a definitive stand and make sure the voice of his generation is heard loud and clear. In a trope often utilised in YA books, this is a story of one young person making a difference, despite being anxious or ill-equipped, in a David versus Goliath battle of principles and protest over might and power.
Hesse is an endearing protagonist who has a lot of other things also going on in his life. He is still grieving the loss of his father seven years earlier in a freak surfing accident, but despite that – or perhaps because of that – he is a keen surfer himself, both fearless and fearful of the sea and the power of the waves, and his ability or capacity to challenge it. It is obvious that Smith is an avid surfer himself and the evocative descriptions of the ocean and its swells and moods, and the detailed depiction of everything from the making of surfboards to the wearing of wetsuits, from reading the weather and predicting the surf to knowing every small nook and cranny of the rocky outcrops and sandy beaches of the local area, show us that he has not so much researched this book as actually lived it on a day to day basis. If you are a surfer, you will appreciate the references. And even if you are not, you will be impressed by the culture of this intrepid sport.
The other main thread is the developing friendship and young romance between Hesse and Fenna, a new exchange student from the Netherlands who has arrived at his school. Fenna is a complex, enigmatic character filled with insecurities and paradoxical behaviour and Smith captures very well the complicated frisson between the two, in addition to the usual teenage difficulties around other friends with competing interests or parents who don’t necessarily agree on political, economic or local issues.
When Hesse receives confidential information from an anonymous source about dangerously high and possibly illegal emission rates from the power station, and the effect on people’s health, he decides to take a stand and make a public statement about the issue. His actions have huge consequences and he is drawn into an international storm; once unleashed, there is no going back.
This novel could be a true non-fiction account of any of the many student action protests that have become more common in recent years, where engaged and informed young people – following the example of Greta Thunberg – have stood up publicly and declared ‘enough is enough’, demanding change from governments, big business and energy providers, urging the adults around them to step up and face the climate emergency that is no longer an emerging problem but is upon us right here and right now. Some small voices have made some big noises on the international stage recently as young people demand action around climate change and insist that older generations become more responsible towards the future of the planet which will be inherited by those who are now children or adolescents. If Not Us features numerous activists of all ages, but it is the young people who take centre stage. It proves that it is possible to be both anxious and energised, inexperienced and determined, young yet powerful. These are challenging times, both for the planet and for Hesse and the other characters personally, and yet these kids step up bravely to confront the problems and the people standing in the way of solutions.
With so much at stake, this novel takes a moral stand about climate change as its characters act with passion, integrity and strength. This narrative will be inspiring not only to younger readers, but to anyone with a keen interest in the fate of the world and what is being done to make changes in policies and processes before it is too late. And while environmentalism is the central theme, the exploration of love, friendship, adolescent confrontation with authority, facing your fears, taking risks and having the courage of your convictions are all simultaneous themes that invite debate and discussion.
If Not Us is well written, with a page-turning plot and rich characters, authentic dialogue and beautiful descriptive prose. It may not have the same tone of fearful urgency of Smith’s previous books, but it is imbued with purpose and optimism that is perhaps more apt for these times of pandemic uncertainty.