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Flash Jack


Flash Jack

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									 eces oe
T a h r ’N t s

                                      Flash Jack
                         Maureen McCarthy

Plot Summary

Jack is a bright, thirteen year old boy who returns with his family after a summer break to find
that their house has been burgled. Computers, sound systems, the television and Jack’s
skateboard are amongst items stolen. With two weeks until school recommences the world
without ‘toys’ looks bleak and uninteresting. The family has only recently moved from rural
Harrietville to the city for work and schooling, and old friends and familiar places seem far

Jack’s older brothers, Sean – sporty, at University, and Frank – sixteen with attitude, are extremely
distressed by the theft. For Frank in particular, who lived for his music, all that he saved for, lived for,
is gone. The family is experiencing difficult times with the relationships between the members at
breaking point; constant verbal confrontations are commonplace. The theft seems too much to

Into this tense situation, Jack’s father Dave throws a lit torch. The bathroom window has been
accidentally left open whilst they were away and he refuses to ‘ignore’ this fact when filling out the
insurance claim. Consequently, their insurance is not valid and they have no way of replacing the
stolen items.
Dave Lightfoot feels he is making a moral stand in telling the truth – the other members of the family
find this difficult to comprehend.

We view this difficult time through the experiences of Jack, now left alone with little to do. Jack really
misses his skateboard most, and wanders the neighbourhood in search of entertainment and time
out. Jack meets Diana – older, different, and more worldly-wise yet childlike – who is unlike anyone
Jack has ever known. They form a relationship that becomes important to Jack. As Jack and Diana,
and then Frank, plot to salvage items that they know to be theirs from the robbery, the situation
becomes life-threatening yet full of drama and intrigue for the teenagers. As family relationships are
stretched and tested, it becomes obvious that Diana was more involved in the robbery than she has
admitted and that it will take strength and caring to bring the family back together.

Flash Jack is a novel that offers us a reading experience that can be savored at various levels.
While it is a summer holiday adventure and a story of first love, it is also a book that poses a num-
ber of interesting views that may cause us to think and question ourselves. Topics such as difficult
family relationships, materialism and the nature of right and wrong, are dealt with by Maureen
McCarthy in such a way as to offer the reader a perspective that will make them question rather
than provide them any concrete answers.

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Structure – ‘light but gutsy’ (Viewpoint 9, 3, Spring 2001)

On the surface this novel is a simple tale of two weeks in a summer holiday that goes wrong. But it
is much more than this. Through the eyes of Jack, we view a family in crisis and witness their
turmoil as they cope with life’s big issues: the nature of truth, how we choose to live our lives and
how we interact with those closest to us.

The view through Jack’s perceptive eyes provides us with a personal perspective on events as they
unfold. His view is, obviously, centred on events as they affect him, yet he does appear to under-
stand the turmoil and anguish that the theft causes for the members of his family.


Jack is clever and very able in his descriptions of both his surroundings and his feelings. His voice
is easy and realistic, moving well between the longer descriptive passages of people and things
(his father on page 23 or Diana’s house on pages 32 and 42) and the shorter, sharp pieces describ-
ing his feelings. The section describing Jack’s feelings as he faces and then overcomes his fear of
the dark is a good example. From page 230 the sentences become short yet descriptive, perfectly
evoking Jack’s voice and feelings – first his fear and then his triumph as he finds Frank and finds he
has the upper hand (page 235).

•       Do these changes in sentence structure work?
•       How do the shorter sentences evoke Jack’s thoughts and feelings?



Jack is a bright, confident, caring thirteen year old. Flash Jack, covering only two weeks of his life,
describes a period of change and discovery for Jack.
In trying to put these two weeks into words, Jack decides the beginning of Dickens’ book The Tale
of Two Cities best describes his feelings:
‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.’ (page 13)

•       What does Jack mean by this? How can any experience be both?
•       Do you think other family members would have viewed the two weeks in a similar vein?
        Why/Why not?

During this novel Jack faces his deepest fear of the dark in order to find his brother Frank and
restore a sense of normalcy to his family (page 230 onwards). Jack is shown as having a certain
inner strength.

•       Does Jack have strength of character not unlike that of his father Dave?
•       Is Jack a Flash Jack?


•       What motivates Diana?
•       Why does she tell Jack she has seen someone riding his skateboard (page 17)?
•       For Jack ‘reading was like breathing’ (page135). Has not being able to read made a differ-
        ence to Diana’s life? What of her reactions to, and feelings about, the book Matilda?

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Diana, even more so than the others, appears to be living in some kind of fantasy world. The day
they watch the robber’s house and make notes (page 125) is reminiscent of television detective
shows. Jack, during the robbery, feels he is ‘stuck in the middle of their fantasy with no way of
getting out’ (page 191).

•       Is all of Diana’s life a fantasy world, or is reality just too stark and hurtful for her?
•       Diana’s bedroom, in contrast to the rest of the house, is tidy and starkly bare. Her life is
        obviously lacking in material possessions. Jack describes it as ‘sad’ (page 77). Why?


‘In one sense it is almost Frank’s story seen through the eyes of Jack’. McCarthy (Viewpoint: on
books for young adults, 9,3, Spring 2001 p. 18)

•       Is this book Frank’s story?

Though Frank appears brutal and without feeling or understanding, he is also described as ‘a sort of
innocent’ (page 185). Jack realizes that he has little understanding of people and very little practise
at human interaction.

•       Is there good in Frank?
•       It is Frank who comes for Jack when he is frightened as a young boy (page 131). Is this a
        ‘different’ Frank?


Sean appears to be a somewhat peripheral character to the main action of the story. He has moved
on from the immediate concerns of the family to a wider world of University, sporting interests and
socializing. Though his world is larger he still displays selfish behavior regarding the feelings of
others, as does Frank, particularly in regard to his birthday tea (page 51 onwards).

•       Is Sean less concerned with material possessions, and therefore more ready to let them
•       Is he not as close to Frank and Jack and therefore apart from the central action?
•       Is he different from his brothers in more than just physical characteristics?

Dave Lightfoot

Jack’s father has an interesting contrast of personal characteristics: a hard drinking, hard living past
coupled with a present day commitment to living a good family life. The physical descriptions of him
by Jack are evocative of a strong, solid man of convictions. He is described as out of place in his
new suburban home (page 14). McCarthy give Jack a perceptive, descriptive ability – he sees his
father as having ‘hair like that grey springy wool you clean pots with’ (page 3), a ‘head like a crushed
kerosene can’ (page 19), and, when angry, as having a face ‘like a lump of just-cooked corned beef’
(page 20).

It is Dave’s moral stance that plunges the family into difficult times. He says:

“‘As far as I’m concerned, doing the right thing is not just for when it suits you’. He was really yelling
at this stage. ‘It’s important to tell the truth even when it hurts – especially when it hurts!’” (page 25)

•       Is Dave right?
•       If he had agreed to sign the insurance forms and forget the open window would he really

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        have been going against his moral code?
•       Is it true, there is no one more hardheaded or difficult than a reformed adherent?

Helen Lightfoot

It is apparent that it is not only the relationship between the three boys that is going through a diffi-
cult period.

•       Is there evidence that Jack’s parents are having difficulties themselves?
•       Does Jack’s mother agree with her husband’s stance?
Jack is consumed by his own life. His mother is going through a difficult period and she is looking
for a job. On page 90 she admits she is not happy.

•       Does Jack register his mother’s distress and concerns?
•       Is Jack’s mother the emotional centre of this family?
•       Look carefully at the interaction between family members during the special birthday tea for
        Sean (page 51 onwards). What does this tell us of Jack’s mother?


Often cruel and cutting, the language of this novel is that of adolescence and family interaction.
‘turd-features!’ (page 8)
‘complete friggin’ tosser!’ (page 24)
’freaky dead-beat chump!’ (page 24)
‘moronic crud’ (page ??)
‘shithead’ (page 53)

•       Powerful words for powerful emotions or just raging hormones?
•       Does McCarthy get it right?

Place / Landscape

McCarthy has set Flash Jack in the suburb of Fairfield in suburban Melbourne. Station Street is a
real shopping centre that one can visit though the shops described don’t exist. The descriptions of
streets and houses, railway lines, swimming pools and the parklands are truly suburban Australia.
They are identifiable and real. The sense of place is very strong in this book and of obvious impor-
tance to McCarthy. She has said:

‘I like to get down and dirty before I write – to be able feel or see where the characters are living… I
see the street and the hot day and build it into what they are thinking’. (Viewpoint)

The strength of this approach is evident in the way the characters fit their surroundings so easily.
McCarthy knows the suburbs well.

Writers such as Archie Fusillo and Matt Zurbo have also recreated the Melbourne urban experience
well, though from different perspectives. Interesting comparisons could be made with the way these
authors recreate their urban environment. Both Fusillo and Zurbo also deal with recognisable areas
of inner urban Melbourne not geographically far from that of Flash Jack.
Authors such as Sonya Hartnett and David Metzenthen have also done much to give us an Austra-
lian landscape. Their work is predominately in a more rural setting, and a comparison of their de-

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scriptions of landscape could be of interest.

Sparring with Shadows by Archimede Fusillo
The Dons by Archimede Fusillo
Idiot Pride by Matt Zurbo
Stony Heart Country by David Metzenthen
Johnny Hart’s Heroes by David Metzenthen
Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf by Sonya Harnett

Not only is the landscape of the novel easily identifiable, but also the period in which it is set is of
equal importance – summer holidays. To young people in particular, this is a time of sun and water,
perhaps holidays away or just lazy days spent with friends in the street or at the local pool. The
scenes detailing Diana’s mum and grandmother sunbaking in the yard, Diana and Jack at the pool,
the descriptions of the bright summer heat may reflect many summer holidays.

‘I followed her out into the hot grey day. The clouds had come down low while we’d been inside. The
mountains of big grey fluffy wads had disappeared, there was just a canopy of flat lead slates now.
Rain wasn’t far away.’ (page 136)
McCarthy does an excellent job of capturing these two weeks before school returns and displays
effectively Jack’s loss and aimlessness at finding himself without electronic toys, and particularly
his skateboard, at this lazy, holiday time of the year.

Other writers have also captured this interesting time, with After January by Nick Earls being an
excellent example of a novel of first love also set during the January summer holidays.

Though the urban landscape is strong in Flash Jack there are also echoes of a rural background
for the family that are important, particularly to Jack and his father who often miss the space and
lifestyle that their past home provided.

•       How does the fact that the Lightfoot family has only recently moved to Melbourne affect the

There are wonderful descriptions of Jack’s father, Dave Lightfoot, seeming out of place in his new
environment – ‘Too big for such a small place’ (page 17). In Jack’s eyes, he belongs back in
Harrietville. The suburban world is not his place or landscape of choice.

•       Are the morals, or ideals, that Dave displays also from another place or time?


This book joins an ever-increasing number of excellent books and series by Australian authors that
deal with a young man’s early adolescence, the pressures of family, friends, school and first rela-
tionships. In many of these novels the protagonists also face major moral decisions or turning
points in their lives that will undoubtedly affect their future development or choices.
Is this the case in Flash Jack for Jack, Frank, or even Diana?

Other Australian novels of this kind, that also tell their story with wonderful humour and vitality

The Lockie Leonard trilogy by Tim Winton
The Wayne Dynasty by David McRobbie
The Al Capsella series by Judith Clark

                                                  Page 5
The Underdog by Marcus Zusak
Going off by Colin Bowles
Deadly, Unna? by Phillip Gwynne
Love, Ghosts and Nose Hair by Steven Herrick

Themes and Ideas to explore


The interaction between Jack, his brothers and their parents is often brutal, yet it is also apparent
that, throughout their difficulties, there is a deep-seated concern for each other and an understand-
ing of where each of them stands.

•        What makes a family unit work?
•        What makes a family change?

Jack is obviously nostalgic for how his family once was:

‘A wave of depression hit me. My family wasn’t always like this. I can remember when my brothers
used to play cricket in the backyard. Sometimes they let me join in. We’d have meals where every-
one sat around laughing and joking. Where had those days gone? Would we ever get them back?’
(page 28)

•        Is Jack’s family, on the surface much more tightknit and outwardly happy, any more func-
         tional than the split and unusual family of Diana?
•        To the community Jack’s family appear happy and successful. (page 57) Do all families
         have an external and an internal life, a public and private face?
•        Jack describes Frank as ‘the mystery at the heart of our family’ (page 196). What does this
•        On page 165 Jack’s feelings move from being ‘annoyed’ and ‘irritated’ with his father to the
         view that ‘He was the best’, all in a matter of a few lines. Is this what family life is like? A
         continual roller coaster of strong feelings both good and bad?
•        The family attends a session with a therapist (first mentioned on page 90), as the parents
         are concerned about how they are interacting as a family. Is this session (page 106 on-
         wards) a success? Why/Why not?
•        During the turmoil of Frank’s disappearance, they miss their next session. Do you think they
         will return for future sessions? Why/Why not?

Parents/ grandparents

Jack’s view of his parents, and his feelings for his grandmother are displayed on various occasions
throughout the novel. (Grandmother – pages 84 to 98) Contrast these with the view we have of
Diana and her mother and grandmother. (page 55 onwards)

Jack describes Diana’s grandmother:

‘She was the weirdest old women I’d ever seen. Her hair was still up in those fancy curls and even
though she was in her dressing gown, her face was packed full of make-up. And her hands! They
were like chook claws: sort of wrinkly and knobbly but with long red nails on the end.’ (page 56)

She almost appears alien to his world experience.
•      Are Jack’s family and Diana’s family so very different?

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Siblings / brothers

Jack’s brothers are cruel and dismissive of each other and their parents.

•       How real is the interaction between Jack and his brothers?
•       Dave says; ‘Boys fight, you know’ (page 81), as if such interaction is to be expected. Is it, or
        should it be?
•       Do the brothers really care for each other?
•       Jack’s brother Frank appears to be the most bitter and the most alienated of the family. Is
        this true, or is he just the least able to cope with personal interaction?
•       Jack compares him to the summer sun, ‘spiteful and relentless’ (page 28). Yet for Frank,
        and his family, Jack conquers his worst fears to go to him and bring him home. Is this real

Jack appears to accept Frank’s faults and love him regardless. During the bungled robbery attempt
at the second hand shop Jack comes to an understanding of his own feelings for his brother:

‘But right at that moment I didn’t care how weird he was, or what a complete drag he was in all our
lives. He was my brother and I would die for him.’ (page 198)

•       Why does Jack feel like this?
•       Are blood ties always the strongest?
•       Would this have been a different story if the characters were girls? Why?

First love

McCarthy does an excellent job of conveying Jack’s feelings for Diana. First love is powerful. In a
very short space of time Jack becomes quickly fascinated with Diana.

‘She nodded and suddenly her frown lifted and she smiled. And I think that was the moment when I
fell in love with Diana.’ (page 45)

‘I had never wanted to know someone as much as I wanted to know her.’ (page 134)

Their first kiss, Jack’s first kiss, is a moment that is ‘enough’ (p. 66). His feelings for her are imme-
diate and strong. Diana, though happy to play the part of girlfriend, is in obvious need of affection
and support in ways that are difficult for Jack to comprehend. Diana’s need for friendship, someone
to read to her, somewhere to belong, are needs that Jack has fulfilled for him by family, school
success and friends. When perhaps it matters most Jack’s thoughts are with his family and he fails
to see Diana before she leaves. (page 257)

•       Is first love fickle? Not lasting? Is this really love?

Morally right?

Jack’s father makes a moral stand on an issue that is important to him, despite the fact that this
angers those closest to him and hurts them all greatly in a material sense.

•       Is what he does right?
•       Why does the family have difficulty with his decision?
•       Is his decision unusual? Why/Why not?
•       Does accepting the Lee family ‘gift’ compromise his earlier decision?

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Summer holidays

Through the description of Jack’s summer holidays, McCarthy places the book as an accurate view
of urban Australian summer life. The bright heat:

‘The sun glared down as I let myself out the front door. It felt as though it was deliberately giving me
a hard time’. (page 28)

‘even the slight wind just made me think a big sweaty dog was breathing on me’ (page 127).

Trips to the swimming pool (pages 60 to 63) and skateboards in the park, all give this book a subur-
ban, Australian summer feel.

•      Could this be set anywhere else?
•      What else makes the novel Australian in feel?
•      Is it important, or relevant, to have reading experiences that reflect our own country and
       its culture/s?


This book has lasting messages about the value of objects and people in our lives. The loss of
objects is felt deeply by all of the family after the theft.

•      How does the loss affect each individual member of the family?
•      How does each member of the family value themselves?
•      How does each member of the family value each other?

Contrast these thoughts with Diana’s family. They appear to have few material possessions and
are able to empty the house and disappear at very short notice. From Jack’s point of view, they
have an untidy, strangely decorated old home that he finds unattractive.

‘It was the sort of house my dad would say needed a bulldozer to fix it up’ (page 37)

‘I couldn’t help thinking it would be embarrassing living there’ (page 32)

Yet Diana says ‘I like living here… This is the best house we’ve ever had’ (page 37)

•      Do Jack and Diana have different views on material belongings?
•      Is it harder to have everything taken if you have a lot?

While to Frank, getting his belongings back is all consuming, to Diana this ‘adventure’ appears
game-like. At the end of the novel Jack’s family is treated to a shopping spree courtesy of Ricky
Lee’s parents (page 260).

•      What do these final scenes convey about materialism?
•      What part do new belongings play in restoring some happiness to the family?

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