The world’s last known Tasmanian tiger died in Hobart Zoo in 1936. Surviving film footage of the marsupial is brief. No sound recordings exist of a thylacine’s bark or cough. Its extinction is one of Australia’s most lamentable tales. Nowra’s sad, dark novel imagines how these carnivores could care for two children lost in the wilderness.
Hannah, who is seventy-six years old, immediately apologises for her language, something she ‘lost’ and had to learn again. She remembers a sunny childhood on a farm with her mother and father, a harpooner back when the Derwent River was ‘choked with whales’. When Hannah was six, her parents packed a picnic and invited her friend Becky to the river. A frightening storm tossed the girls from the boat. When Hannah awoke she found teeth marks on her arm and a thylacine watching her from the bank. The girls followed the creature towards home.
Extinction and preservation course through this unsettling Young Adult novel. Tiger skin bounty hunters are on the way out. Two men on horseback recite Shakespeare to each other. Hannah joins a ship to hunt for scarce whales in the book’s weaker moments. Even languages need preservation: Hannah’s saviour Ernie lugs a phonograph across Tasmania to record the songs of ‘farmers, shepherds, drunks and old women’ before they are forgotten.
Haunting and gruesome at times, Into That Forest succeeds because even when events of Hannah and Becky’s lost four years seem outrageous, Nowra maintains a tragic, fairy-tale sensibility. Indeed, years later, Becky flees her school production of Little Red Riding Hood and returns to the forest in a ‘dirty red dress and a red torn and stained hood hanged down her back’. Nowra’s descriptions of the girls’ transformation and the beauty of the thylacines who help them are very moving.