At its core, John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began is a coming-of-age story. Ellie and her friends are just high school students when an unknown foreign power invades their native Australia, and even though they aren’t yet old enough to legally drive, they must face the invading power alone in the bush—without their parents. As Ellie and her friends evade the encroaching enemy soldiers, they are constantly reminded of their childhood, which, though only weeks earlier, feels like a lifetime ago. When Ellie and Corrie hide in an old treehouse near Ellie’s property, they are both stuck by past memories of the treehouse, “holding tea parties, organising [their] dolls' social lives, playing school, spying on the shearers, pretending [they] were prisoners trapped there.” Now, instead of playing make believe, they are in danger of becoming actual prisoners. The war means the inevitable loss of innocence for Ellie and her friends, and they must grow up fast. Through the change and growth of the characters in Tomorrow, When the War Began, Marsden effectively argues that young people are capable of maturity and profound transformation, especially when prompted by something as serious as war.
The war robs Ellie and her friends of their childhood innocence and forces them into adult situations, which underscores their naivety and inexperience but also highlights their growth and maturity. When the war begins, Ellie and her friends are young and naive. “Invasions only happen in other countries, and on TV,” Corrie says to Ellie. “Even if we survive this I know I’ll never feel safe again.” For Corrie, childhood is the illusion of safety. Now that illusion is gone, and so is Corrie’s childhood. Ellie agrees with Corrie’s assessment about the illusion of safety. It isn’t like they believed in Santa Claus, Ellie says, but they did believe they were safe from any real danger. Ellie claims such safety was a “big fantasy,” and now that they know it isn’t true, “it’s bye-bye innocence. It’s been nice knowing you, but you’re gone now.” For Ellie and Corrie, the war means looking at the world in an entirely different way. Because of the war, Ellie must stop “being an innocent rural teenager” and become a completely different person, “a more complicated and capable person, a force to be reckoned with even, not just a polite obedient kid.” Ellie is becoming an adult, and a proficient one at that.
Ellie and Corrie are not the only characters to grow and mature—each of their friends undergo profound transformations as well, which suggests that they are equally touched by the effects of the war. Throughout the course of the novel, Homer is transformed from an immature prankster to a serious guy, one who can be counted on to plan intricate attacks on the invading enemy soldiers. “He’s changed so much, don’t you think?” Fiona says to Ellie about Homer. Since the war, he is nothing like the teenager they remember. Similarly, Robyn, who has always been afraid of shots and blood, steps up and takes care of Lee after he is shot by the enemy soldiers, changing his dressings and even injecting him with antibiotics and painkillers. “Robyn!” Ellie cries, “You faint when people even mention injections!” Because of the war, Robyn is forced to grow up, and she courageously accepts the challenge. While each of the characters grow and mature, it is perhaps Fiona who changes most profoundly. Fiona is transformed from a pampered rich kid into an independent young woman, and she is the one who strikes the match that ignites the tanker truck at the novel’s climax, putting some much needed space between her friends and the advancing soldiers. At the beginning of the novel, Fiona fears she won’t be able to live without her parents, but by the end, she is a major reason why her friends survive.
Ellie and her friends realize that all of their childhood “games were imitations of adult rituals and adult lives,” and it is time they stop “playing.” For Ellie especially, this is a difficult prospect. “I was shocked that it could have all gone so quickly, sad at how much I’d lost, and a little frightened about what had happened to me and how I’d fill the future hours,” Ellie says. Despite this fear, however, Ellie and her friends manage to confront the war with maturity and wisdom, leaving behind their childhood selves forever.
Coming of Age, Transformation, and the Loss of Innocence ThemeTracker
Coming of Age, Transformation, and the Loss of Innocence Quotes in Tomorrow, When the War Began
I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this. I might as well say so now. I know why they chose me, because I’m meant to be the best writer, but there’s a bit more to it than just being able to write. There’s a few little things can get in the way. Little things like feelings, emotions.
Finally we came to an agreement, and it wasn’t too bad, considering. We could take the Land Rover but I was the only one allowed to drive it, even though Kevin had his P’s and I didn’t. But Dad knows I'm a good driver. We could go to the top of Tailor’s Stitch. We could invite the boys but we had to have more people: at least six and up to eight. That was because Mum and Dad thought there was less chance of an orgy if there were more people. Not that they'd admit that was the reason—they said it was to do with safety—but I know them too well.
And yes. I’ve written that “o” in “know” carefully—I wouldn’t want it to be confused with an “e.”
Suddenly the loud buzzing became a roar. I couldn’t believe how quickly it changed. It was probably because of the high walls of rock that surrounded our campsite. And like black bats screaming out of the sky, blotting out the stars, a V-shaped line of jets raced overhead, very low overhead. Then another, then another, till six lines in all had stormed through the sky above me. Their noise, their speed, their darkness frightened me. I realised that I was crouching, as though being beaten. I stood up. It seemed that they were gone. The noise faded quickly, till I could no longer hear it. But something remained. The air didn’t seem as clear, as pure. There was a new atmosphere. The sweetness had gone; the sweet burning coldness had been replaced by a new humidity. I could smell the jet fuel. We’d thought that we were among the first humans to invade this basin, but humans had invaded everything, everywhere. They didn’t have to walk into a place to invade it. Even Hell was not immune.
I went for a walk back up the track, to the last of Satan’s Steps. The sun had already warmed the great granite wall and I leaned against it with my eyes half shut, thinking about our hike, and the path and the man who’d built it, and this place called Hell. “Why did people call it Hell?” I wondered. All those cliffs and rocks, and that vegetation, it did look wild. But wild wasn’t Hell. Wild was fascinating, difficult, wonderful. No place was Hell, no place could be Hell. It’s the people calling it Hell, that’s the only thing that made it so. People just sticking names on places, so that no one could see those places properly any more. Every time they looked at them or thought about them the first thing they saw was a huge big sign saying “Housing Commission” or “private school” or “church” or “mosque” or “synagogue.” They stopped looking once they saw those signs.
The rational thing to do would have been to leave her and rush into the house, because I knew that nothing so awful could have happened to the dogs unless something more awful had happened to my parents. But I had already stopped thinking rationally. I slipped Millie’s chain off and the old dog staggered to her feet, then collapsed forward onto her front knees. I decided, brutally, that I couldn’t spend any more time with her. I’d helped her enough.
Robyn took over. “We’ve got to think, guys. I know we all want to rush off, but this is one time we can’t afford to give in to feelings. There could be a lot at stake here. Lives even. We’ve got to assume that something really bad is happening, something quite evil. If we’re wrong, then we can laugh about it later, but we’ve got to assume that they’re not down the pub or gone on a holiday.”
“Maybe all my mother’s stories made me think of it before you guys. And like Robyn said before, if we’re wrong,” he was struggling to get the words out, his face twisting like someone having a stroke, “if we’re wrong you can laugh as long and loud as you want. But for now, for now, let’s say it’s true. Let’s say we’ve been invaded. I think there might be a war.”
The image I’ll always remember from Corrie’s place is of Corrie standing alone in the middle of the sitting room, tears streaming down her face. Then Kevin came in from checking the bedrooms, saw her, and moving quickly to her took her in his arms and held her close. They just stood there for quite a few minutes. I liked Kevin a lot for that.
I couldn’t look at anyone, just down at the table, at the piece of muesli box that I was screwing up and twisting and spinning around in my fingers. It was hard for me to believe that I, plain old Ellie, nothing special about me, middle of the road in every way, had probably just killed three people. It was too big a thing for me to get my mind around. When I thought of it baldly like that: killed three people, I was so filled with horror. I felt that my life was permanently damaged, that I could never be normal again, that the rest of my life would just be a shell.
Homer was becoming more surprising with every passing hour. It was getting hard to remember that this fast-thinking guy, who’d just spent fifteen minutes getting us laughing and talking and feeling good again, wasn’t even trusted to hand out the books at school.
I realised to my disbelief that it had been only about twenty hours since we'd emerged from the bush into this new world. Lives can be changed that quickly. In some ways we should have been used to change. We'd seen a bit of it ourselves. This treehouse, for instance. Corrie and I had spent many hours under its shady roof, holding tea parties, organising our dolls' social lives, playing school, spying on the shearers, pretending we were prisoners trapped there. All our games were imitations of adult rituals and adult lives, although we didn’t realise it then of course.
“They seemed such innocent days. You know, when we got to high school and stuff, I used to look back and smile and think ‘God, was I ever innocent!’ Santa Claus and tooth fairies and thinking that Mum stuck your paintings on the fridge because they were masterpieces. But I’ve learnt something now. Corrie, we were still innocent. Right up to yesterday. We didn’t believe in Santa Claus but we believed in other fantasies. You said it. You said the big one. We believed we were safe. That was the big fantasy. Now we know we’re not, and like you said, we’ll never feel safe again, and so it’s bye-bye innocence. It’s been nice knowing you, but you’re gone now.”