Nova Weetman is one of Australia’s best middle-grade authors and I devour everything she writes. Her book, Sick Bay, was one of the first novels I had read that included a main character with type 1 diabetes and she impressed me with her sensitivity and understanding in relation to what life can be like for a young person with type 1 diabetes. I mentioned the book she co-wrote with Emily Gale, Elsewhere Girls, in my review of Emily’s latest book here. So, it’s fitting that I have read and reviewed these two brilliant books back-to-back, as my last book reviews for 2023.
When I read a novel by Nova, I am transported back to being 12 or 13, and reminded of the ways that stories helped me to grapple with the changes in my body and my mind, as I transitioned towards my teenage years, and into young adulthood. I sought out books with emotional connections, ones that made me feel less alone and spoke to me, and this latest book, The Jammer, is one of those stories. It has all the elements of a great book-to-movie; an enormous loss, a road trip, the importance of friendship, quirky characters, dogs, cats, mice, and roller derby!
Fred has moved around her whole life, one small town after another, and never minded starting over. She’s always had her mum, her dad, and her love of roller derby. On the track she’s Fred or Dead, the star jammer, a gun at smashing through a line of bodies and scoring for her team.
But Fred’s life has fallen apart, and now she can’t imagine ever putting her skates on again.
On a road trip to Melbourne with her dad, Fred meets a bunch of people who think they know what’s best for her. And although Fred tries to avoid it, roller derby has a way of barging back into her life. A true jammer could push through anything, but Fred doesn’t know who she is anymore.
What do you do when the thing that could save you is the thing that hurts the most?
The story begins with Fred and her dad saying goodbye to her mum at her funeral. We are introduced to the roller derby community and Fred’s multitude of difficult emotions, as she grapples with her mum’s death. Fred feels as if she must throw roller derby away from her life, as she and her dad begin their road trip to her uncle, who she doesn’t know. He lives in the place where her mum came from and it is here, that her mum wants her to find herself, and her connections to the past. It is here, that she will find a way forward in life, without her mum.
At first, Fred doesn’t want to have anything to do with roller derby, because it is too painful; she doesn’t want to think about her mum, or hear other people talking about her life. But graduallly, as she develops a relationship with her uncle Graham and his household of rescued animals, and a boy who sells pet mice, and the daughter of one her mum’s best friends, another roller derby lover, Fred begins to find her footing, without her mum; she begins to find her way home.
I couldn’t stop reading this book, finishing it in the car at school pick-up, sitting beneath a purple jacaranda flower storm, crying openly, as I hurried through the final pages to find out how it would end. I wasn’t a roller derby player, but I was a roller skater in my teens, and there is nothing like the feeling of skating across ground, as if you are made of air. I can still feel it now if I close my eyes and imagine myself with my bright blue and yellow boot skates. There is also nothing like the feeling of realising you are going to be alright, that things might be hard in your life right now, but that there are people who love you, people who are there to take your hand.
This is one of those books that will stay with me for a long time. Nova is a masterful storyteller and she understands the need for moments to breathe amongst the action, to reflect in the midst of emotional moments. She understands how human beings think and feel and need each other, and most importantly, what it is like to be at the beginning of your teens, navigating a world that can be confusing and difficult, where it can feel like there is nowhere that you fit, until you realise, that there is a place for all of us, we just have to stay open to love.
Highly recommended for ages 10+ and especially for readers in the 11-13 age group, but also, for adults. Do yourself a favour and get it wrapped and under the Christmas tree.