When We Were Two by Robert Newton is a beautiful coming-of-age novel. Set in country New South Wales, during the early part of the twentieth century, it tells the story of Dan who leaves his abusive father in search of his mother. He has barely begun his journey when he is joined by his younger brother Eddie and the family dog Bess. Eddie clearly has an intellectual disability and Bess is ill, thus Dan is unwilling to include them on his trip, however he soon succumbs to Eddie’s insistence and the trio begin their long journey.
The relationship between the brothers is immediately clear. Dan is Eddie’s champion and protector, taking on his brotherly role with tenderness and understanding. Eddie looks to Dan for guidance, strength and succour. It is obvious that both boys have suffered deeply at the hands of their cruel father.
Their journey is punctuated by meeting various characters on the road, some honourable like the Chinese gold seeker Ah Ling, others not so noble. The pivotal point in the story comes when the boys meet a small group of men marching to the coast to enlist as soldiers in the Great War. Dan and Eddie join this cluster of men, becoming a part of the small clique. During the ensuing journey they learn about the innate gentleness and kindness of good men and ultimately about acceptance and belonging.
The main themes of this book are love and loyalty. Dan, whilst burdened with guilt about Eddie’s disability, displays unselfish love and devotion to his younger brother. The relationship between the two brothers is beautiful, and Dan’s ability to provide gentle, selfless love is surprising given the role model he has had. Dan explains this by suggesting that it was his father who taught him what not to be: “Whenever a mean streak got hold of him, my father taught me kindness, and whenever he hated, he taught me love”. The men in the marching group are all affected by Dan’s guileless love. Despite this sensitivity and the gentle treatment of his brother, Dan is tough and stoic where necessary, never making excuses or shirking responsibility and as such is an excellent role model for modern young men.
Robert Newton is a talented writer. The narrative flows effortlessly and the reader is able to piece together the back story of the boys whilst being fully immersed in the current plot. Newton creates believable characters in an authentic historical context with settings, descriptions and language evoking the era in which the novel is set.
When We Were Two is suitable for students in Stages 4 and 5, especially boys, and would work well in a unit on historical fiction. The themes of love, loyalty, loss and belonging are universal and as such this novel would also appeal in wide reading programs.