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The Song Walker

Authored by Zillah Bethell
Published by Usborne Publishing Ltd

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The Song Walker: When we meet the narrator of Zillah Bethell’s The Song Walker, she is confused and alone.  She is wearing a silky black dress and one Mary Jane shoe. Her hair is knotted and she is carrying a heavy metal case. This young girl is lost in the Australian Outback, a beautiful but treacherous landscape and has no idea who or where she is. She is saved by Tarni, a First Country girl from the Alaywarre community. Tarni proves herself to be resourceful, confident, calm and kind. But over the course of their journey together, we learn that she too is vulnerable. Through flashes of memory, ‘I try to ignite the dried grasses of the memories hidden away inside me’ our narrator learns about her life, revealing uncomfortable truths. Truths she keeps hidden from her new companion. As the children journey across the Northern Territory together, they encounter many dangers, their secrets unfolding for the reader and characters at the same time.

The Australian Outback is central to this adventure, ‘A beautiful and brutal land. Relentless and endless. Empty yet full.’ Interwoven through the plot are lessons about First Country culture and traditions. As the girls learn to trust and respect one another, prejudices are addressed, and they form a strong and sisterly bond. Motifs of music and song run through the adventure. Tarni follows her ancestor’s songlines and we learn that the narrator is a talented violinist. This is a place ‘Where the songs sung are the songs of life, and the music played is the music of the stars.’

The Song Walker is a moving tale. It deals with themes of identity, discrimination, culture and loss. The present tense narration adds a sense of intimacy, and we real compassion for the main characters. The girls are protective of each other and the bellbird, Candelabra, which Tarni has also rescued. This is also a story about respect and self-discovery.

This beautiful novel could inspire many creative and interesting opportunities for learning. I would want to explore the motifs and themes and get under the skin of the characters. It is a book to stimulate deep discussion and would provide stimulating writing opportunities. But The Song Walker would also make a brilliant read-aloud story for upper KS2 pupils or an intimate book to share one-to-one with a reader.