Higgie, Rebecca. The History of Mischief. Fremantle Press, 2020. RRP: $19.99, 376pp, ISBN: 9781925816266.
The house is surrounded by a fence made of tall iron bars and a gate covered in metal roses, some in full bloom and others just little buds. You need a big key, like the ones you see in movies with castles, to open it. When we moved in, Kay gave me one of the keys. It has a small copper rose on top, its petals only half open. On the handle, there are the strangest words: Property of A. Mischief. (16)
Nine-year-old Jessie is good at lots of things, like counting. She spends her time counting the names of the dead soldiers on the war memorial in the park near her new house in Guildford, WA. Jessie moved to her new house, which is her grandmother’s old house, after her parents were killed in a car accident. She counts the names of the dead and imagines them buried beneath the paving stones under her feet. Jessie’s parents don’t have a gravestone, which makes her sad. There should be a marker of sorrow for them. Jessie wants everyone to feel that sorrow.
Fogarty Literary Award winner The History of Mischief follows Jessie as she struggles through not only grief, but also her growing maturity. It leans into history and weaves it with rich fantasy, so that the two are indistinguishable, creating a world that has limitless potential to surprise.
Jessie sinks into this rich tapestry of make-believe and history when she finds a book titled The History of Mischief under the floorboards of her grandmother’s old house. Each chapter follows a new historical figure—such as a boy enslaved by Alexander the Great and a woman fearful for her daughter Mulan who is fighting in war—who develop magical powers they call ‘the mischief’. They inspire Jessie to research the times and events described in the History and even embark on her own mischievous acts, with varying degrees of success.
I write down all of the things I learn. The dates are often different from the History, but historians always get things wrong or argue. Some of them even name the other historians they think are wrong. They argue a lot over Alexander. Some think he was clever, while others think he was cruel and mad.
None of them know about The History of Mischief. I know something kept secret from the whole world. (108)
True to its Western Australian setting, the novel invests in rich evocation of Guildford, and because Jessie is reluctant to get in a car after her parents’ death, real-life Perth struggles such as two-buses-and-a-train public transport journeys. Jessie accompanies Kay to her job at the State Library and is treated to clandestine visits to off-limits archives in her research. But the child’s appetite for knowledge knows no bounds, leading to new skills, friendships and empathy, as well as eventually making way for revelations from unexpected places.
Grief is a central player in this story, though it is often in the shadows, informing each characters’ mysteries. Jessie is puzzled and annoyed by the behaviours of the people around her until she realises that they too are grappling with their own griefs, real, imminent and imagined. We, the reader, recognise her deep dive into the world of the History as a coping strategy, but we are also very willing to sink into the same escapist thrall. Reality, however, awaits us all. Painful, puzzling and with mysteries of its own.
What Jessie learns, over the course of the story, is that history is full of omissions, secrets and lies. And she learns of her own family’s story, the true one, the one never told. Bringing such a high-flying tale back down to reality in its final denouement is a challenging tone shift for an author, but it is this marriage of myth, magic and reality that makes The History of Mischief such a deeply affecting tale. Jessie learns about grief, truth, and the varying guises both can take, and the reader is also forced to recognise injustices and lies of the past that will not be denied. It’s a hard lesson for Jessie, but one she grows through, and surely compelling reading for both young and not-so-young.
Rachel Watts is a writer of literary and speculative fiction and short, creative non-fiction. Her writing has been published by Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue and more. Her manuscript ‘In the Morning I Rise’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Penguin Literary Prize.