Book review: The Song of Lewis Carmichael, Sofie Laguna, Allen and Unwin

A hot air balloon journey to the Arctic circle: a tale of friendship and resilience.

Sofie Laguna is best known for her adult fiction, narrated through the perspective of at-risk children and adolescents who are in crisis due to a combination of familial and environmental factors.  Her books have won awards for their psychological acuity but their subject matter is quite often grim. Lesser known is the fact that she’s been twice awarded by the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) for her early childhood and younger reader books.

Her latest effort, The Song of Lewis Carmichael, is another novel for kids, written for those in the 8-12 age group, with the copy interspersed with beautifully detailed illustrations by Marc McBride. It’s about a dreamy, lonely boy, Matthew Zarac, who has been long obsessed with the North Pole. For Matthew, reading about the Arctic tundra and boreal forests was pure escapism from a fraught world.

One night, after once again overhearing his parents argue about him,  he is awakened by a talking crow, a bird with a broken wing he’d met earlier in the playground. He’d shared his muffin and shown the crow his book (A journey to the Farthest North) and so Lewis Carmichael (for that was the bird’s name) decided it would be a good time to take Matthew on an adventure.  A hot air balloon and wicker basket appear outside the window, with Lewis anxious to start the journey to the North Pole with his bewildered new friend. Together they learn how to fly the balloon. They have fuel and provisions for three days in the Arctic.

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Laguna has a talent for writing young characters and she engenders empathy for an awkward, socially inept boy who’s unable to find the right cues to play with his peers. Above air, caught up in the elements and suspended between sea and land he is forced to become more resourceful and confident. He finds emotional support from his sleek-feathered buddy and realises he is capable and handy, able to make life-saving decisions. Constantly by Matthew’s side, Lewis is a mentor, a guide and a cheeky companion throughout the journey.

The book is populated with wildlife aplenty (gannets, snow geese, puffins, terns, polar bears, reindeer, owls, eagles and wolves) and Matthew has encountered both wondrous and dangerous. Though there’s more magic and less grit here, like all her work, the vulnerable child is at the heart of Laguna’s fiction. The Song of Lewis Carmichael is an engaging tale with an old fashioned boy’s own adventure ambience.

The Song of Lewis Carmichael, Sofie Laguna, illustrated by Marc McBride
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
ISBN: 9781760878573
Pages: 192pp

Format: Paperback
Publication date: 31 August 2021
RRP $16.99

Thuy On is Reviews Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She's the outgoing books editor of The Big issue. Her first book, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was published by University of Western Australia Press. Her next collection, Decadence, will be published in July 2022. Twitter: @thuy_on