Ella and her big half-brother Emery live in a future dystopian Australia, where a fungus has wiped out grass and led to worldwide famine. They live in the city, but when Ella’s mother fails to return from her job trying to restore the solar power grid, and then their father fails to return home, they gather their dogs, make a dry-land dog-sled and set off across the open countryside to make it to Emery’s grandparents’ farm.
This is a journey novel – an adventure story about two children making it across rough terrain. But MacDibble gently nudges the reader into deeper thought about the way we treat the land, our food, our future, and each other.
In the wake of famine, societal norms have broken down. Cities, and sometimes houses themselves, are enclosed by security guards as much to keep people out as keep people in; there are checkpoints and rogue gangs, empty promises by the government of food distribution. For a society starving to death, behaviour disintegrates. The children learn to trust no one – not even a mother with her pushchair and crying toddler. Gangs roam on solar-powered motorbikes, trigger-happy with guns and eager to find any food – even dogs, and willing to shoot children who get in their way.
In a particularly difficult scene, the children come across a farm that has been razed to the ground, the farmer killed, presumably for the meat they were harboring, for the few fruit trees they had left.
As Ella relates, the news tells them that there is no rice in Asia, no maize in Africa, no corn in America. The book explains the importance of grass for all food production.
With her idiosyncratic prose, MacDibble sets to show how over-production and inattention has wiped out the consideration that must be given to the land we harvest. She gives voice to indigenous cultures in the form of Emery, who is of Afghani/Aboriginal ancestry, and whose grandparents are attempting to re-utilize the old ways of storing grain – working on the land with people who have garnered knowledge about it over time.
In fact, what MacDibble shows is that respect must be given equally to other people and to the land we care-take, and in the absence of both, people die.
The children’s relationship is highly reminiscent of Scout and Jem from To Kill a Mockingbird: the younger feisty sister, and an older protective brother, but in circumstances that dictate it is Ella, the younger sister, who must summon all her courage, step up and take the lead after Emery is hurt.
Above all though, this is a fast-paced adventure novel, about adaptability, the importance of kindness, and a showcase for children’s hope in the future of the planet.
Issues of climate change surface in MacDibble’s novels, firstly in How to Bee and now in The Dog Runner. Here, she gives her top tips for everyday changes we can all make to fight against climate change:
What can I do about climate change?
Walk, cycle or take public transport
Plant trees or volunteer to help reforest an area
Eat what is grown locally
Cut back on red meat, especially save beef for special occasions
Stop using pesticides
Leave some areas wild as a haven for insects
Create a bug hotel
Reduce single use plastic bags, cups, bottles, straws and packaging
Pick up litter to prevent it entering waterways
Turn lights and switches off when you’re not using electrical items
Write to your local government about creating more forested or green spaces
Bren MacDibble was raised on farms all over New Zealand, so is an expert about being a child on the land. After 20 years in Melbourne, MacDibble recently sold up, and now lives and works in a bus travelling around Australia. In 2018, How to Bee – her first novel for younger readers – won three major awards in Australia. The Dog Runner, her second children’s novel, publishes 2nd May. You can buy it here.