I read The October Child when it first came out, which meant I was only about 9 or 10. I found it pretty heavy going at the time, although I often found myself identifying with young Douglas, the responsible, sensitive and slightly anxious protagonist.
I knew nothing about autism at the time and didn’t realise that the baby in this book was autistic. Spence doesn’t use the term anywhere in the book, but describes exactly the tendencies and habits of an autistic child and the impact this can have on an entire family.
This book moved me as a child but also scared me – so much so that I never read it again – until this week.
And I can see why.
This is a powerful, emotionally charged book. The new baby wrecks havoc on this quiet family. It strains relationships, exhausts the mum, alienates one of the siblings and causes the whole family to move to the city to be near a special school exacerbating all their difficulties to breaking point.
There is no happy, hopeful ending; but a realistic, thoughtful ending instead.
A little bit of knowledge, a new way of seeing things and a baby step forward in understanding is all that we are left with. No wonder I found this so disconcerting as a child – a child also growing up in a family with a sibling with a disability.
The October Child was awarded the 1977 CBCA Book of the Year. It was shortlisted for the British Carnegie Medal. In 1999, Spence received the Australia Council for the Arts Emeritus award “for her outstanding and lifelong contribution to Australian literature.” Spence was also made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2005 for her “contribution to Australian literature and her services to autism.”
Eleanor Spence died in 2008. In her obituary in the SMH, Maurice Saxby, the children’s literature expert, wrote:
More than any other writers, Eleanor Spence and Joan Phipson have perhaps helped guide the direction of Australian children’s literature in the past 30 years. They have both expressed in their novels of family life not only social changes but the concerns and preoccupations of a growingly complex Australian society.
The October Child is not an easy read, but it is a worthy and worthwhile read for mature 10+ readers who like their stories real & gritty.