One of my cherished childhood memories would be picking up a David Hill book for Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) after lunch in primary school or under the eucalyptus tree at home time. Many like me would have read his New Zealand historical fiction novels for young readers, such as My Story: Journey to Tangiwai (2003) and No Safe Harbour (2003). They were bookbag favourites growing up, and Hill continues to keep them coming.
His latest novel, Coastwatcher, is a thrilling story set in World War II. It concerns New Zealand soldiers Private Frank Benson and Willy Ropata, who become ‘coastwatchers,’ gathering details of enemy activity on the Solomon Islands. Working alongside the Australian serviceman Les Murray, they come across A’ata, a Solomon Islander who invites them to his village. Although A’ata and his companions Jacob and Esau are open and friendly, Frank and his fellow soldiers must remember that they are in the middle of a brutal war in the Pacific Theatre. They must be cautious about whom they confide in and learn to make crucial decisions on their own in a land they know nothing about.
An award-winning author for children and young adults, Hill’s storytelling in Coastwatcher is fresh, honest, and descriptive. Although they are fictional, Frank, Willy, and Les are skilfully portrayed, reminding us that soldiers are also humans with their own quirks, concerns, jokes, desires, and regrets. The Solomon Islanders are depicted as individuals with hardships, dreams, and sheer determination to survive under Japanese occupation and the presence of Allied troops. Hill emphasises the bleak uncertainty of war, particularly from the perspectives of inexperienced, foreign soldiers. Fiery metal and saltwater are intertwined with timeless themes of friendship, trust, sacrifice, and hope.
Coastwatchers not only tells a story but encourages readers to learn about the pasts and peoples of the Pacific. The book’s appendices comprise a helpful glossary and beginner’s guide to Morse Code, often used by signallers during the World Wars.
Written in an informative and enthused manner, this novel would appeal to young readers and fans of historical fiction and military studies. In fact, for those interested in learning about New Zealand and Pacific history, Hill’s Coastwatchers would be an excellent starting point.
Reviewer: Azariah Alfante
Puffin, RRP $19.99