Review: When The Ground Is Hard

I came to this book on a whim. I saw it on Facebook and thought ‘why not?’ It didn’t sound exactly like what I wanted to read, but I picked it up anyway. I’m so glad I did! There is almost nothing I can criticise about this book. Nothing felt out of place or off-beat.

The blurb for When The Ground Is Hard focuses on protagonist, Adele, developing a friendship with new roommate, Lottie, through their shared love of Jane Eyre. While this is technically correct, the book and the friendship between Adele and Lottie is so much more than this small snapshot allows. Their friendship begins well before they start reading Jane Eyre together, but it is the process of reading together that strengthens their bond and allows them to learn about each other through the way they responds to the book and Jane. The friendship with Lottie marks a transformation in Adele, from the girl that she was to the girl she should be.

‘There is almost nothing I can criticise about this book. Nothing felt out of place or off-beat.’

Not only is this a beautiful story about friendship, but also a poignant exploration of a young girl’s first experiences with death, racism, status, injustice, acceptance and her own rage. The way that Nunn explores the nuances of these themes is eloquent and beautiful. They are handled with a gentleness that makes them appropriate for the younger readership. This gentleness does not dim the seriousness or power of these concepts, with Nunn’s examination hitting right to the core of these issues and how they manifest and affect society.

The boarding school environment places these issues in a familiar setting while letting them play out in a microcosm of the real world. When The Ground Is Hard did not feel didactic or preachy, but simply like a meaningful story that opened new perspectives, for both the character and potentially the young reader.

The theme of death is particularly touching in this book. Since death is such a private event in our society, it can be hard for children and adults alike to process loss and grief. When The Ground Is Hard faces this head-on. I will not go into depth here to avoid spoilers but will say that this book does a great job in handling death and the characters’ responses to it. The addition of the Swazi spirituality is particularly touching and adds another layer of authenticity to the book.

‘The other standout aspect in this book is Adele’s character arc.’

The other standout aspect in this book is Adele’s character arc. Adele is taught to be kind, polite and quiet. While these qualities all have their place, they are all Adele is taught to be. As such, she is meek, she is a pushover and she is a bystander to injustice. This book shows Adele questioning these beliefs and challenging the normalised notions around her. Lottie is the catalyst for this character shift, with her strong will, determined views and acceptance of others. The arc follows Adele’s friendship with Lottie, but also Adele’s strength and courage as she decides and defines the person she wants to be.

Adele’s ignorance on how things work and the greater issues around her are her biggest challenge. While mixed-race, she comes from a place of privilege due to the support her family gets from her white father. They have money, clothes, electricity and books. At its core, Adele’s character arc is about questioning and challenging her ignorance and privilege and the power structures that have allowed them. While there are moments of resistance, her overall journey is something to be celebrated.

‘At its core, Adele’s character arc is about questioning and challenging her ignorance.’

Nunn’s writing feels economic but also very atmospheric. From the first chapter I was drawn into the setting and I didn’t lose that feeling at any point. The landscape felt so real and the imagery conjured the warm night and dusty potholed road so vividly. The writing feels dynamic and nothing is described the same way twice. The chapters are very short, making it a really easy read for kids. Though the chapters are short, each is very strong and stands as an excellent building block for the story and character development.

This book is great for parents, teachers, librarians and any other adults who want to introduce kids to these themes in a gentle and meaningful way.
I would highly recommend for readers of any age.

Title: When The Ground Is Hard
Author: Malla Nunn
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Extent: 272 pp.
RRP: $19.99
Read If You Like: Parvana, The Bone Sparrow, Brown Girl Dreaming.

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