It’s about Billy, who leaves home aboard a freight train heading interstate. Billy finds himself in Bendarat, living in a disused train carriage, where he meets a homeless man called Old Bill. Old Bill drinks away his past while Billy tries to find a future. The other main character is Caitlin, a girl Billy meets in Bendarat. All three characters are searching for something to give their lives substance. Steve Herrick’s poetry novel tells the story of a homeless boy’s quest to find somewhere to belong. After he runs away from an abusive father, Billy lives in an abandoned railway carriage. There he meets another homeless man, Old Bill and starts to understand the nature of belonging. Caitlin, a lonely girl from a rich family, helps him along the way.
Why did you write “the simple gift”?
I wanted to explore the relationship between a young man and an old man. As adults, we seem to believe that the idea of being an influence works only one way – we adults can influence young people for the better. In the book, I wanted to show it working the other way – that is, young Billy really being the positive influence, in fact, the catalyst, for Old Bill rejoining the world. I know my two teenage sons are a wonderful positive influence on my own life. It seems to me that the world of young people is becoming increasingly marginalized by mainstream media. As adults, we need to accept, encourage, and indeed, embrace the world of young people. Let’s see the relationship as a priceless two-way street.
What is the theme of “the simple gift?”
At the time of writing this book, I was listening to a wonderful folk CD by Bruce Springsteen titled the ghost of Tom Joad. On this CD, there are a few songs about middle-aged men who are searching for something to give their life meaning. The word redemption kept rolling around my head when listening to the songs, and writing this book. That word certainly came into play in how I created the character of Old Bill. The other thing I kept thinking about while writing was the whole notion of gifts – what is valuable in our life? How do we measure what is valuable? The notion of the spiritual versus the material is something that informs a lot of my writing. Anything else you want to tell us about “gift”
One reviewer called Billy an atypical hero, which I thought was interesting. That got me thinking about what is heroic, and how it relates to some of the characters in my other books. I reckon Billy from “gift”, within the story they do something of great value, that is a little thing – give friendship and hope to an old hobo; these simple little things are what I think of as heroic. They are done by ordinary people, in a quiet unobtrusive way, and to commit these acts it requires compassion and love and respect. And they are far more heroic and necessary than any world-record sporting achievement. And they cannot be measured in dollars and cents.
“the wind and rain
hits you in the face
with the force of a father’s punch.”
That was a relatively easy image to think of because Billy was escaping the violence of his home life.
Yeah, that’s fine, but what about BELONGING!!!! I think a closer understanding of the notion of each characters search for an identity and for a place in the community they’ve constructed would be worthwhile. I also think it’s fair to say that a search for an identity can be related to the idea of wanting to “belong” to oneself. That is, the search for a conscience you can live with/inhabit. The use of “interior monologues” throughout “gift” can be seen as “keeping your own community” – the conversation with yourself (which is the essence of an interior monologue) is an attempt to understand how you belong both in this world, but more importantly, to your sense of self.
“The Simple Gift”, Stephen Herrick’s narrative poem demonstrates elements of belonging and acceptance through the ‘pain and suffering’ of rejection, ‘homelessness’ and ‘dealing with death’ by the characters Billy, Caitlin and Old Bill. The protagonist Billy Luckett sixteen years of age ventures into the world; leaving home on his own decision. Billy reveals himself as a reject, a thief; and a troubled character who rejected a restrictive regimented irrelevant education system. The cause of his alienation appears to be physical and psychological abuse from his father, lack of caring from his school and his run down neglected neighborhood with its “truck still on blocks” “unmown grass”, “broken windows” and which he derisively refers to as “each deadbeat no hoper sh-thole lonely downtrodden house in Longlands Rd, Nowheresville”. All the symbols pointing to a decaying, decrepit, depressing environment. The school also receives a blast from Billy’s poisonous pen.
Why 4:30? Most schools would have emptied two hours earlier, however the rest of the stanza rings true as Billy sets the scene on a windy rainy day with the Principal’s run down car blowing smoke, the rubbish strewn oval, Mr Cheetam (Cheater?) notes on Japan to 26 bored students and Billy self-described as “one lucky bastard” admitting to have ‘stolen’ the lipstick used for his graffiti. He leaves an elliptical epithet: “Billy Luckett rhymes with…” revealing his frustration through a loss of words Another evocative portrait is reminiscences in the poem “sport” in chapter one. The ‘pain and suffering’ of ‘soulless tyranny’ endured by him from ‘the old bastard’ his father. This technique of expletive language is used to depict the poor relationship he shared with his father “he gave me one backhander… I felt the blood” and his attitude toward the world he’s living in. Whilst catching a train, uncertain where the train will take him, bad weather, wind and rain recalls the violent significant memory of his father “with the forces of a father’s punch”.
The metaphoric terms further reveal Billy’s harsh living environment he is seeking to escape. Herrick induces us to feel empathy rather than antagonism to the protagonist. This is accomplished through the intimate use of language, changing perspectives and personal anecdotes. Ernie’s train whistle symbolises the beginning of Billy’s new life contrasted favourably by Ernie’s ‘not bossing you around’. His next positive role model is Irene, Bendarat’s Librarian, who welcomes him and encourages him to borrow books. Billy faces many obstacles or challenges in his new environment, such as lack of accommodation and food, because he has no income. An old train carriage becomes the protagonist’s new accommodation while he feeds off scraps of leftover food at McDonalds where he catches the attention of Caitlin. Another self imposed exile is, Old Bill, who suffers trauma due to the loss of his daughter Jessie, after an incident of Jessie falling out of a tree.
This led Old Bill to ‘homelessness’ as his home reminds him too much of his daughter, which eventually brings him to the streets turning to alcohol to relieve the pain. After this loss, Old Bill’s ‘pain and suffering’ that he endured means he doesn’t care much about life. Billy and Old Bill developed ‘a friendship and sense of camaraderie’ as he treats Old Bill as his ‘father figure’. “I like the kid…I like his company” contrasts the lack of love and relationship between Billy and his real father. Old Bill’s emotive language as he explained to Billy “and I fell with her, and I’ve been falling ever since” emphasizes he’s still not over it. The bond of friendship is important, it emphasizes the strength in one’s relationship, yet it doesn’t grieve nor boast but helps one another through rough tough times, which is portrayed as Old Bill becomes less alcoholic, and slowly recovers from the loss of his daughter as “he experiences life that we planned”.
Growth in maturity is shown as both of the two protagonists show signs of growth as they help each other. Billy’s growth is demonstrated as he becomes a ‘different’ individual from the beginning of the narrative poem showing positive thinking “sure there’s hope in the world…even for hobos like us”. Whilst Old Bill’s relationship with Billy and Caitlin, Old Bill’s view of the world slowly starts to change, as the protagonist reduces his consumption of alcohol and ventures to achieve plans that were made with Jessie. While Old Bill demonstrates the symbolism of ‘A Simple Gift’ when he gave his keys to his old home to Caitlin and Billy. Caitlin also feels as a misfit in her affluent society. She feels discomfort in her uniform, her school, and her luxurious home due to a whispering in her heart that it is all false, superficial, affected and pretentious, so she escapes by slumming it, looking for real values to replace the artificial ones in her world.
She is attracted to Billy because of his self assurance and his genuine intelligence. It is the interaction between these three characters and the sharing of gifts, coffee and food, that unites them against a cold, callous and uncaring society. As St Francis of Assisi says “For it is in giving that we receive”. This narrative novel/poem/drama (?) is very successful and appeals to young people. In a recent poll it was voted the best drama in Australia despite the fact that is generally categorised as a narrative poem.
It is fairly realistic and credible though there are parts that stretch the imagination. Caitlin comes across a bit contrived but her portrayal is plausible. There are many reasons for individuals to venture into the world as the text “The Simple Gift” shows to achieve self-reliance and independence, even so, many individual’s personality in life may change as they experience parts of life first hand. Many would like to experience their own mistakes, which is dealt with in texts like “Ten Things I Hate about You,” “Looking for Alibrandi” and “the Simple Gift” yet to find eventually that their perspective was completely opposite. Like most clichés “don’t judge a book by its cover”. The Simple Gift illustrates that gain acceptance from others by uncritically accepting them.