Fortress - Gabrielle Lord

This is one of those books I missed reading as a young person. I remember it being referred to as confronting and a thriller, but also a children’s book. As far as I was concerned being Australian and a kids’ book, I was unlikely to read it (I missed out on so much through my youthful prejudices!).

Six years after its initial publication in 1980 it was made into a film starring, Rachel Ward.No wonder the novel was adapted for the screen: it’s tight and suspenseful.

Sally teaches at a one teacher school in an isolated town. The school day starts with Sally getting ready and reflecting on her personal situation (billeted out to stay with local families, thinks she might be pregnant from a one night stand, despite all the difficulties she wants to see her posting through). Immediately the reader is drawn to Sally: she’s smart, a bit cynical, amusing and, although she’s tough, she also has self-doubts.

When Sally arrives at the school house, she organises the little kids into a reading group in the yard while the older ones start cleaning up the classroom preparatory to the inspector coming the next day. Like all good horror the ordinary has to be established before the scary things begin. We don’t get much ordinary, though, before four men wearing comic masks and carrying sawn off shotguns appear, and it all begins.

Lord uses a very small canvas: Sally and her class of twelve are kidnapped, taken away in a van and held in a cave. For the most part we stay with Sally and the kids and only know what they know, trying to piece together what’s happening and what the men want. The tension is ratcheted up nicely. The beauty is that Sally doesn’t only have to save herself, she has to save the kids – this means marshalling them, telling them only what they need to know, using the skills of the older ones and comforting and cajoling the young ones. She is effectively on her own having to

rely on her own resources but with the burden of the children restraining her.

Sally and the kids are tested to the limit but this is not a simple narrative. Again and again we think they are going to escape, only for them to be thwarted by the men, sometimes in the most brutal fashion. There is murder, there is violence, there is the threat of rape. Like The Lord of the Flies the children are not simply victims, they have agency like adults and the will to survive. Often I thought I had the measure of this book, only for Lord pull out an unexpected twist.

Fortress is a successful book. It was reprinted in 1988 after the film, then in 1998 and 2001. I read one reviewer who said they had read it in school in Year 9 – a writer knows they’ve made it when they’re on the school curriculum. There is also some discussion of whether it is a children’s book or not. It is probably what we would call now a ‘cross over’ novel; a book that can be read with enjoyment by both kids and adults, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time or Mister Pip, for example.

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© Helen Richardson 2015.

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