Book Review ~ The Family Conspiracy by Joan Phipson

This one came home with me after the latest sort through of books in the DHM’s bookshelves. I pulled it out to read while monitoring the children during their bath time. It looked like an easy read and also one I wouldn’t mind getting a bit wet, as the Striderling is so *very* much into splashing these days. I knew absolutely nothing about the story ahead of time, but now that I’ve read it I would definitely consider it one of the sweetest family stories I’ve read in the last few years.

Set on a hardscrabbling Australian farm, Phipson’s tale is about a large family (where the children are homeschooled until they’re sent to boarding schools around the age of 12 or 13) and the children’s secret efforts to earn money toward a surgery their mother needs.

These secret efforts, of course, don’t turn out quite the way the children expect them to and there are all sorts of lessons to be learned along the way. Some of the lessons are more serious than others ~ a nine yo boy trapped in a cave in, for one, because he preferred the thought of instantly finding gold to the more practical and (seemingly) more laborious work of catching rabbits. Some of the lessons are a bit more light hearted ~ the ten year old girl who comes close to destroying her hard earned savings by playing the lottery, for instance.

This action deeply upsets and offends her siblings and ties in with another reason I loved reading this book: the children aren’t always treacly sweet in their interactions, but it is abundantly clear that they deeply love their family.  Any sibling being away is missed dearly.

And there’s an awful lot of being away from home in this book, even apart from the boarding school aspect. The level of responsibility expected from the young people in this family would shock most parents today. A 13 yo boy spends several days helping as a cow drover across the plains, for example, and all of the children are expected to contribute to the maintenance of the farm.

The farm could actually count as another character in this story, actually. The way it runs, its dependence on rain, the geography that surrounds it… all these things and more color the tone of the book in ways barely noticed while reading, but that leave a strong feeling of truly having been there when it’s all said and done.

Perhaps my one qualm with the book is the way the parents and the father is portrayed. Phipson is never directly unkind, but she’s not as glowing about the father as she is the mother, and there are a few moments where his temper and lack of logic are left open for either serious reflection or brief comedic relief, depending on the scene in question. It’s quite clear that he loves his family and that his children respect him, but there’s still an air of something wanting about him that was a bit out of place for how warm everything else related to the family is. A child might not pick up on this as much as I did, though, and it certainly wasn’t enough to detract from the overall joy and pleasure of the book.

The book has a happy ending, of course… the children give their hard earned money to their mother, both parents are dumb founded and overwhelmed by the generosity. It really all comes together so very nicely and sweetly. 🙂

I was curious about the author, as it seemed like she wrote about Australia as someone who really *knew* it and wasn’t just writing about it because she liked the backdrop. Turns out that Joan Phipson was actually a rather important Australian novelist for children; there’s a good biography of her here. Looking at her title list, I am thinking that some of her later ones look a bit more political than I would like, but I’m curious about her other early books.  Are there Australian readers who recognize her and some of her works?

If you’re looking for something clean and entertaining for kids in the 9-13 range or for something that will work as a family read aloud, definitely consider this one. 🙂

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