While I Live, the first in John Marsden’s The Ellie Chronicles trilogy, picks up where the last of the Tomorrow series left off: the war is over, much of Australia has been ceded to Indo – I mean, Nameless Enemy Country – and Ellie Linton and what remains of her friends must find a way to adapt. The Lintons live on a border property, and early on in Live, Ellie’s parents are brutally murdered in what may or may not have been a guerrilla retribution attack on Ellie. While I have no idea what it’s like to live in an area so recently decimated by war, I think Marsden captured well the unease of living in a border area: each side distrusting each other and feeling they’re entitled to the other side’s stuff, as well as constant skirmishes that have varying degrees of authorisation by their governments. There’s plunder and rape for no better reason then they felt like it – although, of course, the plunder and rape is only commited by Nameless Enemy. Australians don’t commit such horrific crimes, no sirree.
So, Ellie must continue on her own with the assistance of Gavin, a boy she and her friends took under their wing during the war who is, for all intents and purposes, an orphan. However, her parents‘ financial advisor – I forget the guy’s name – has his eye on her Linton property and engineers against her will to become her gaurdian and sell the farm for a song to a crony who at best would be called a war profiteer. Ellie, as a seventeen-year-old, has no redress and it looks like all is lost, but the way she eventually circumvents this is so cool and ingenious it could only come from a seventeen-year-old.
The trilogy also brings back Lee and Homer, with Fiona making the occasional appearance. (Kevin is nowhere to be seen; he’s not even mentioned.) While I would have liked to see more of Fi – these two girls/women went through hell together, and she barely gets a mentioned? – at least it was partially justified by the fact that Fiona has always been a town girl, while Ellie and Homer are farm kids. So instead of Fi (and Corrie and Robyn) we get Shannon, Jess and Bronte. They’re OK – although there’s a pretty good twist involving Bronte towards the end of the third book, Circle of Flight – but one thing I missed about the Tomorrow series was the closeness between the women.
Something I love is that Ellie doesn’t become InstaMum to Gavin (who is only 7-10 years younger than her, anyway). At best, it’s InstaBigSister. Taking care of another human being doesn’t come naturally to her, like some would have you believe having two X chromosomes would. But at the end of the day, they’re both devastated when protective services split them up. (Protective services, haven’t you read the last nine books? Don’t you know it’s a dumb idea to come between Ellie and hers?) I loved Ellie’s relationship with Gavin. They fight, but at the end of the day, they love each other and work together to defeat a common enemy – whether it be weeds, Nameless Enemy, Gavin’s step-father or protective services.
There’s plenty of actions, of course – it wouldn’t be an Ellie Linton novel if she didn’t leave a 24-style trail of destruction in her wake at least once per book. It would be so easy to portray her as superhuman to the point of caricature, a kind of hybrid of Ellen Ripley and McGyver, deep in alien territory, shooting at whatever evil creature gets in her way, all with whatever bits and pieces she has handy. (Bonus points if she doesn’t use those bits and pieces in the way they were intended.) Instead, she comes across as a person who is very human, very fallible – including getting badly injured and suffering from exhaustion – but keeps going because it’s in her nature to keep going until she’s either dead or captured.
Random Cool Bit #1: When Ellie’s parents are killed and Fiona’s have turned her request for guardianship down – citing geography, I believe – she then goes to Homer’s, who accept. I believe the line is ‘if I couldn’t have Fi for a sister, the next best thing was having Homer for a brother.’ I love how this reinforced their very close but strictly platonic relationship, maintained through most of the Tomorrow series and all of the Ellie series. Homer and Ellie share something pretty special that is entirely non-romantic or special. Marsden never hints at anything else; they may as well be brother and sister. Which brings me to…
Random Cool Bit #2: When Ellie’s new boyfriend Jeremy is jealous of Ellie and Homer’s relationship, he has a sulk and tells her to choose because he wants to be the #1 priority in her life. Riiight, like running a farm, playing an unofficial role in a resistance movement, studying fulltime and caring for a disabled child while legally a child herself aren’t worthy pursuits, no, she should make him #1. Ellie is hurt, confused and angry – particularly in light of the fact that she is hardly his #1. But she tells Jeremy where he can stick his ultimatum, because like hell is she giving up a mate of untold years – and fellow survivor of the Tomorrow series – for a boyfriend of a few months. I loved how for Ellie, there was no choice, even if Jeremy were being reasonable. Which it makes clear he isn’t. (What would have been even cooler? Had it been Fi that Jeremy was asking her to ditch. ‘I’m your man, ditch the girlfriend’. Yeah…no.)
If I have a gripe, it’s that Flight feels like it was hurriedly finished, as if Marsden woke up one morning, realised he was sick of Ellie and co and wanted to see the back of them. I can’t say I’d blame him if this was the case – combined, it’s a ten-book series written over fifteen years – but it still feels a little rushed. Particularly the resolution of Ellie and Lee’s tumultuous relationship – I never got the impression that they had addressed what had gone right and wrong in the past and how to err on the side of right.
But for all that, I prefer the The Ellie Chronicles to the Tomorrow series, I think because this is primarily Ellie’s story and not fractured by those of Fi, Corrie, Kevin etc. And I liked that Ellie had a more definite resolution than Tomorrow did; while not exactly ‘and they lived happily ever after’, Circle of Flight leaves you with the sense that anyone who can go through what Ellie has gone through, fought for what she’s fought for – and won a chunk of it – and still has the spirit to out-maneuver a bureaucrat… is going to be fine.