Trainsurfer by Kate S Richards
Updated: Nov 20, 2020
The day his mother dies, Jabu’s instinct is to run. He runs from the Johannesburg hospital and soon finds himself amongst a gang of train surfers atop a hurtling train. Death stalks him, and he flees again. Through a series of fortuitious events, Jabu learns to surf the ocean and develops a deep relationship and affection for the street children.
This thought-provoking book, written by school librarian Kate S Richards, was surprisingly compelling and captivating.
Set in South Africa in the 1980s, the main character is a Zulu boy called Jabu. Life in an apartheid society is wrought with sadness and danger as Jabu struggles with life. In a time when interracial friendships were very unusual – and dangerous – the young boy develops a strong relationship with a group of children. Together the group display courage, loyalty and friendship to overcome the societal dangers.
Trainsurfer is an easy to read book in terms of readability, but packs a punch with some intense themes - including racism, prejudice, substance abuse, poverty, and death. Richards, who immigrated to New Zealand in 2009, doesn’t make the story all roses and sunshine. She doesn’t shy away from the hard issues, nor does she make the characters without flaws.
Kyle in particular is one ‘flawed’ character, and Richards allows readers a good glimpse into the personal development that the character must make.
Richards has included a glossary in the book to explain the different South African terms used throughout the text, as well as a small reference section for further reading. The book is also included on a ‘master list’ of suitable books for secondary school English teachers and students. The New Zealand Book council worked with the New Zealand Association for the Teaching of English, and the New Zealand Society of Authors, to compile the list in order to promote the reading and teaching of local authors. Richards hopes to develop a set of teachers notes to accompany the story in light of the book’s inclusion.
Richards’s insight as a school librarian into children’s reading habits has been well utilised. Originally conceptualised as a screenplay, Trainsurfer is full of cinematic-style action. It is a gripping, fast paced read.
Despite shining a light into a dark moment in history and all it contained, Trainsurfer is ultimately a story of hope and redemption.
Richards is currently working on the standalone sequel to Trainsurfer, which follows a character briefly introduced in the first book – the rhino. I look forwards to seeing Richards move from historical fiction to conservation in Saving Thandi.
Reviewer: Rebekah Fraser
Green Room House, RRP $22.99