Fortress – Gabrielle Lord

This is one of those books I missed reading as a young person. I remember it being referred to as confronting and a thriller, but also a children’s book. As far as I was concerned being Australian and a kids’ book, I was unlikely to read it (I missed out on so much through my youthful prejudices!).

Six years after its initial publication in 1980 it was made into a film starring, Rachel Ward.No wonder the novel was adapted for the screen: it’s tight and suspenseful.

Sally teaches at a one teacher school in an isolated town. The school day starts with Sally getting ready and reflecting on her personal situation (billeted out to stay with local families, thinks she might be pregnant from a one night stand, despite all the difficulties she wants to see her posting through). Immediately the reader is drawn to Sally: she’s smart, a bit cynical, amusing and, although she’s tough, she also has self-doubts.

When Sally arrives at the school house, she organises the little kids into a reading group in the yard while the older ones start cleaning up the classroom preparatory to the inspector coming the next day. Like all good horror the ordinary has to be established before the scary things begin. We don’t get much ordinary, though, before four men wearing comic masks and carrying sawn off shotguns appear, and it all begins.

Lord uses a very small canvas: Sally and her class of twelve are kidnapped, taken away in a van and held in a cave. For the most part we stay with Sally and the kids and only know what they know, trying to piece together what’s happening and what the men want. The tension is ratcheted up nicely. The beauty is that Sally doesn’t only have to save herself, she has to save the kids – this means marshalling them, telling them only what they need to know, using the skills of the older ones and comforting and cajoling the young ones. She is effectively on her own having to

rely on her own resources but with the burden of the children restraining her.

Sally and the kids are tested to the limit but this is not a simple narrative. Again and again we think they are going to escape, only for them to be thwarted by the men, sometimes in the most brutal fashion. There is murder, there is violence, there is the threat of rape. Like The Lord of the Flies the children are not simply victims, they have agency like adults and the will to survive. Often I thought I had the measure of this book, only for Lord pull out an unexpected twist.

Fortress is a successful book. It was reprinted in 1988 after the film, then in 1998 and 2001. I read one reviewer who said they had read it in school in Year 9 – a writer knows they’ve made it when they’re on the school curriculum. There is also some discussion of whether it is a children’s book or not. It is probably what we would call now a ‘cross over’ novel; a book that can be read with enjoyment by both kids and adults, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time or Mister Pip, for example.

2 Replies to “Fortress – Gabrielle Lord”

  1. Are you aware that Fortress is based on actual events? Edwin John Eastwood became notorious as the Faraday Kidnapper when he kidnapped the tiny Faraday State School, near Bendigo, Victoria in October 1972. He kidnapped Mary Gibbs and her six pupils and hid them in a locked van in bushland near Lancefield, Victoria. During the evening, in the absence of the kidnappers, Mary heroically kicked a metal panel from out of the rear door with her heavy platform boots, and she and the six schoolgirls were able to escape. They were found early the next morning by a hunting party.

    Eastwood was jailed for the crime, but escaped from the Geelong Gaol, in 1976. He struck again, this time kidnapping teacher Robert Hunt and his nine pupils from the Wooreen Primary School, near Leongatha, in South Gippsland, Victoria, on 14th February, 1977. In this attempt of kidnapping, he ended up with 16 hostages after his van with the kidnapped teacher and school children inside, collided with a log truck on the Grand Ridge Road. The driver and passenger were taken hostage, as were two more men who stopped to assist. Two ladies were also taken hostage when they came on the scene,. The hostages were then bundled into the ladies camper van, and driven to a bush hideaway near Yarram, Victoria. The hostages were chained together, but during the night, one of the male hostages managed to slip away and raised the alarm. Eastwood was recaptured and imprisoned once again. One of the school boys, talking about the events said “It was not a very good day. It gave me a headache.”

    I actually find the real accounts of both the Faraday and Wooreen kidnappings more fascinating than those described in Fortress. Maybe that could be made into a telemovie?

    1. I wasn’t aware of this – thank you for drawing my attention to the real life basis for the story. As is often the case, fact is more out there than fiction. I still think Lord did a great job in creating an intense and thrilling novel.

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