Vikki Wakefield’s This is How We Change the Ending explores disadvantage in Australian society, presenting readers with a memorable protagonist whose innate strength and intelligence contrast sharply with his lack of individual agency. In portraying Nate McKee’s background – including his experience of family violence and his relationships with other teens at a local youth centre – Wakefield aims to counteract negative stereotypes of marginalised youths. She has composed a complex novel in the bildungsroman tradition, with an anti-hero who grows both morally and psychologically as he overcomes and escapes his circumstances.
Starting off: agree/disagree
This opening activity has two functions: it invites students to consider their own beliefs about ideas that emerge in the novel, and provides insight into what they already know about novel study.
Display the following quotes from the novel (you might prefer to remove the page numbers so they appear more random) and ask students if they agree or disagree with the comments. They will share their responses in groups.
- I worry about the big stuff: climate change, animal cruelty, the state of politics, boat people, whose finger is on the button, bigness, nothingness, all of it. (p. 20)
- … every conversation has to be meaningful and anything we say must be tested to find hidden depth. (p. 22)
- And you can’t change anything anyway. (p. 36)
- Anything is possible. (p. 96)
- ‘Apathy is the true enemy because it just doesn’t care.’ (p. 102)
- ‘… we have to become a monster to defeat a monster.’ (p. 122)
- Facts resolve questions, and a question with an answer is a worry that has lost its power. (p. 158)
- There’s always a test. (p. 170)
- ‘Girls aren’t allowed to be angry?’ (p. 194)
- ‘… discontented people are the ones who effect change.’ (p. 196)
- ‘Poetry, art, human endeavour … It lights a fire in your belly – it alters the way you see yourself and the way you see the world.’ (p. 215)
Once students have discussed their responses, they should consider:
- What kind of character would express these ideas?
- In what kind of novel would you expect to see these ideas?
- Where might the novel be set and what do you think will happen?
The title and the cover
Moving from the quotes to the title is not only a good way of testing predictions, but also mimics the process of reading (i.e. building upon and altering knowledge as new information is encountered).
Students will answer the following questions as they consider the impact of the title This is How we Change the Ending:
- How does the word ‘we’ address the audience?
- What does the word ‘how’ imply about the plot of the novel? What does the reference to ‘the ending’ tell you about the nature of the novel?
- What other ideas does the title suggest to you? Do you think it has a ‘revolutionary’ tone? What is it saying about power?
Once students have discussed the title, direct them to explore the symbolism on the cover, which departs from the usual character-based images often displayed on young adult novels.
- What impression does the dark lighting create?
- Why is fire used, and what does fire symbolise?
- Is it a cover that shows hope, destruction, despair, violence or a mixture of all these things?
Look back at the quotes and consider how they, together with the cover, shape expectations of the novel.
Students can start exploring the novel’s background issues by pairing up and conducting research based on one of the following questions:
- What barriers prevent disadvantaged adolescents from participating in society?
- What factors contribute to the cycle of poverty and disadvantage in Australia?
- How does our family background create or restrict our life choices?
- What are the effects of family violence in Australia?
Each pair will produce an infographic or presentation in response to their chosen question. They should aim to include at least three pieces of factual or statistical information.
Reading the text
Bairstal, the small town where Nate lives with Dec and Nance, is deliberately portrayed with minimal details. We learn that Tash lives in the most confronting part of town, that Bairstal is within driving distance of an elite private school (St Monica’s), and that Nance originally came from a town up north. The specifics are kept to a minimum, though Nate does mention that Bairstal is an unwelcoming place, much like Rowley Park High (p. 212).
Could this be a deliberate decision by the composer to give the town a universal feel? How does this affect the message?
Although there are few direct observations of Bairstal, Wakefield uses vivid symbolism in her descriptions of the physical setting, such as the broken and bug-infested street lights (p. 11). What is the purpose of this metaphorical vision?
It is important to consider how writers can sensitively and thoughtfully portray places that are often denigrated, misunderstood and viewed as inferior. In her Sydney Review of Books essay, ‘Hopefully the Future is Dark’, Felicity Castagna notes that traditionally marginalised communities in western Sydney are ‘an idea’ that it is important to ‘write against’. Students can compare this notion to Wakefield’s depiction of Bairstal to understand the need to battle simplistic stereotypes.
The anti-hero and ‘angry young men’
The protagonist of This is How We Change the Ending does not fit the criteria of a conventional hero, yet he is still able to change his world for the better. Nate displays many heroic qualities: his kindness to his stepmother and half-brothers, his intellectual curiosity, his basic morality in the way he treats others, and his courage. However, his adolescent cynicism, his occasional resistance to people’s well-meaning attempts to help him, and his pervasive sense of alienation from a hostile society make him a complex character. The author has said:
I don’t mind if readers identify with Nate or find him different – other – because I don’t think it matters if you like or agree with a character. What matters is that the reader interrogates their own beliefs and prejudices, that questions are raised. I think of Nate’s lack of agency as a lack of options and opportunity – he must choose between survival and vulnerability, belonging and resistance, and that’s a terrible choice for a young person to make.
– Vikki Wakefield, October 2021 (reproduced with permission from an email chain between the author and unit writer)
These comments reveal much about the novel’s purpose and its relevance for students. By creating an unconventional protagonist, Wakefield hopes that readers will actively engage with the social issues that have limited his sense of agency, or his ability to make his own free choices.
Students can consider Nate’s introduction: he is unwilling to intervene in a fight between Dec and Nance, despite Nance’s vulnerability (p. 8); he is unable to get his driver’s licence due to financial constraints (p. 12); and he makes self-deprecating comments about his own literary efforts (p. 14). He does, however, show a reluctant interest in his teacher’s rant about the fact that he and his classmates are victims of society (pp. 18–19). He has begun to consider the conditions of his life, but feels unable to resist them.
Nate displays characteristics of an ‘angry young man’: an archetype that defines the representation of many anti-heroes in adolescent fiction, such as Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. ‘Angry young men’ also commonly featured in plays written in the UK during the 1950s and 60s – realist texts that functioned as social critiques and explored discontent with the existing social order. These characters reflected the limitations of working class life and were often preoccupied with obtaining a measure of social mobility through escaping poverty and oppression. Further information about ‘angry young men’ in texts can be found in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The world of This is How We Change the Ending, despite its realism, also has elements of a dystopia: extreme inequality, violent incidents and a melancholy atmosphere that makes social change difficult. Unlike a dystopia, however, it is the relationships between flawed individuals that set the mood in Nate’s community, rather than the dictates of a totalitarian oppressor.
As a character, Nate has something in common with Winston Smith from 1984 or Guy Montag from Fahrenheit 451: all three protagonists are caught in circumstances beyond their control and are struggling to break free from the forces that constrain them.
To respond to this aspect of the novel, students can draw from their experiences of reading and discuss:
- In what kinds of settings do we find ‘angry young men’?
- What are these young men angry about?
- Is this a masculine trope or do we find female characters with the same discontent?
As students read This is How We Change the Ending, ask them to highlight words relating to anger (e.g. ‘angry’, ‘temper’) and then write about its function in the text (e.g. when Mim describes being angry on p. 279). They should think about Tash, who says she doesn’t want permission to be angry (p. 196), and whether she fits the ‘angry young man’ archetype. What does this say about gender?
Discuss with students the purpose and function of prologues in stories.
The prologue to This is How We Change the Ending takes place during a hunt in the bush. Students can discuss this scene using the guiding questions below:
- Who is in charge? How do you know this? What is their relationship to the protagonist?
- Dec says that doing is the only way the protagonist will learn. What does he have to learn?
- What does this scene reveal about the relationships in the book?
- If heroes undergo tests and rites of passage, what was this test about? In what way(s) might this protagonist be an anti-hero?
- Hunting is a traditional rite of passage for a boy to ‘become a man’. What is the author saying about such masculinity?
- Following the prologue, the setting switches to an urban housing commission area. Why would the author start her story in the bush when the rest of it is set in the city? What is she signalling about the main character and the events to follow?
The book returns to the prologue on pp. 227–228 when Nate writes his homework assignment about conquering a fatal flaw. It is useful to revisit the prologue and see how it positions his character in Chapter 22.
The opening chapters
After reading the first few chapters, students can form small groups and discuss the following:
- This is a work of realism. What do you like or dislike about the protagonist? Is he recognisable as a real person? What is strikingly ‘real’ in the way he describes his family and peers?
- When Nate comments about others, we also learn about him. What observations does Nate make of the other characters? What does this show about his own character?
- How does Wakefield use foreshadowing to create atmosphere in her presentation of Nate’s town? What indications are there that Nate’s life will have limitations or challenges?
- Some reviews of the novel state that it is about hope. Are there any suggestions of hope in the opening chapters? What personal attributes does Nate possess that might eventually enable him to escape his circumstances?
- Masculinity is a key thematic concern of the text. How do Nate, Dec and Merrick present different versions of masculinity? What does ‘masculinity’ mean in the context of Nate’s family, and how does he fail to meet his father’s definition of masculinity?
1. Analytical writing
Students are to research and write an extended definition of an anti-hero. The may include any of the aforementioned examples and references to Nate’s depiction in the opening chapters of the novel. Once they have done this, they can write a structured piece of analytical writing comparing Nate’s initial description to another anti-hero. They should aim for 400–500 words in response to this question:
Read what poet, essayist and philosopher Criss Jami has to say about the position of the anti-hero in society. To what extent is this true of Nate and ONE other anti-hero you have encountered in a fictional text?
2. A podcast
Students will consider the novel’s cultural context: a small contemporary town, home to a number of underprivileged and disaffected youth. Imagine that an important politician is staging a visit to this town, and that the teenagers who attend the local youth centre have chosen to confront him to protest its closure. In pairs, students will produce a short news podcast covering the protest (3–4 mins). They should include sound effects and interviews with the characters, alongside a voiceover documenting the effect of the protest.
3. A film pitch
In pairs or small groups, students are to write a film pitch to gain funding for a film based on This is How We Change the Ending. The film will be concerned with Nate’s journey as an anti-hero. Students can include images in a Photo Story, OBS video or .MOV format. Their pitch (2–3 mins) should be a persuasive text justifying why Nate’s journey as an anti-hero will resonate with a young Australian audience, and reflect the challenges they face in modern society.
Vikki Wakefield writes from life. She feels that characters can act as microcosms of the world around us, and tell us about the lived experiences of groups who may experience marginalisation and stigma:
I write mostly from experience and focus on things I care about; every scene contains something real or true. I think we are often overwhelmed by how big the world’s problems are, and by writing a smaller, more intimate story about one person and their place in the world, a writer can explore bigger societal issues without making them seem overwhelming. I wanted to affirm that not everyone can save the world, that changing their own world can be enough, or at least a place to start.
– Vikki Wakefield, October 2021 (reproduced with permission from an email chain between the author and unit writer)
A close study of This is How We Change the Ending should emphasise the text’s exploration of issues relating to poverty, family violence, gender, disability and individual agency in Australian society.
Good novels often play with existing structures or impose variations that reflect or extend the story’s main ideas. This is what we find in This is How We Change the Ending.
One structure that we can consider is the bildungsroman (literally ‘the novel of formation’) or coming-of-age narrative. A bildungsroman typically begins with the ‘set-up’ or protagonist’s backstory, including a childhood memory (students will note Wakefield’s use of a prologue). The plot focuses on experiences that shape the protagonist’s character and sense of self, often with a crisis of faith or epiphany. The climax and resolution involve this character coming to maturity and finding a sense of belonging in the world.
Viewing Nate’s experiences within this framework allows the reader to focus on the importance of character growth. Nate’s eventual escape from Bairstal with his stepmother provides a satisfying resolution – though the novel’s first-person narrative style emphasises that the real resolution lies in his changed perceptions of the world.
The bildungsroman provides a way of organising the traditional story, which moves from complication to climax to resolution. Students can do some research and then construct a diagram illustrating the bildungsroman structure. They can discuss and test whether This is How We Change the Ending fits this structure by plotting its scenes on the diagram.
Dream – Goal – Plan – Action – Reality
Repeated throughout the book is a variation on a famous Greg Reid quote: ‘Dream – Goal – Plan – Action – Reality’ (p. 22).
- In what part(s) of a traditional story structure might we expect to see a dream, a goal, action and reality?
- What might happen in a novel during the dream phase? How is the dream shared?
- How do we learn about a character’s goals?
- How does a novel show action, and what kinds of action might suit particular goals?
- How does a novel end with a reality?
Students can work in groups or as a whole class to create a shared story following this structure.
The mantra ‘Dream – Goal – Plan – Action – Reality’ is popularly used as a self-help technique. In the novel, it represents Mr Reid’s desire to empower his students and help them transcend the challenges associated with their socioeconomic background. Although Nate is often sceptical of Mr Reid, he is an important character for his strong sense of social justice. Students might discuss whether the novel lives up to the promise of ‘reality’, or whether it instead demonstrates how difficult it is for disadvantaged youths to achieve their goals. They should keep the title of the novel in mind, along with the imperative tone of This is How We Change the Ending. Who is the ‘we’ in the title?
As students read the novel, they can highlight references to Mr Reid’s mantra. Chapters 17 and 20, for example, centre on goals. On p. 252 Nate underlines ‘Action’ as he reaches that stage, and on p. 257 he explains what this involves (fighting his enemies). He ends Chapter 29 by charting his progress from dream to reality (pp. 289–290).
Students ought to consider:
- What was Nate’s dream? What evidence is there for this?
- What was his goal? What evidence is there for this?
- What was his action? What evidence is there for this?
- What was his reality? What evidence is there for this?
Tragedy and the fatal flaw
One of Mr Reid’s homework assignments centres on the idea of a hero with a fatal flaw. The fatal flaw is an important element of the Aristotelian tragedy. Students can find diagrams tracing the tragic hero’s journey and reflect on how Wakefield’s novel overturns this structure. As Nate says to Mr Reid on p. 259, his fatal flaw could, in fact, be his superpower.
Writing about structure
Having examined different structural possibilities, students can write an extended response on how the structure of the novel reflects and reiterates the title and its message of hope.
The novel begins with an epigraph containing Ursula K. Le Guin’s words on revolution.
- How does this quote make students feel? Is it invigorating, inspiring, worrying or perplexing? What does the epigraph suggest about the novel?
- Students can consider and write their own definition for the word ‘revolution’. What do they know about revolutions? What conditions are necessary for one to take place? What is the intent? What does it mean to have a successful revolution?
These questions form the basis of a free writing exercise with the following prompt:
If you were to lead a revolution, how would you begin? How can adolescents try to encourage social change?
Students are to write whatever thoughts come into their heads for the next ten minutes, then share their work with a partner. Are there any similarities and differences between the responses?
Following this, students can go back and expand their own writing in response to the following extension question:
What is one current social issue or injustice that is worth starting a revolution over?
Some of Wakefield’s characters have a revolutionary spirit, and both Nate and his friend Merrick comment on the tenacity of ideas (pp. 183, 189). But Nate does not feel that everybody is on equal footing when it comes to making a difference.
- Does the class agree with Nate’s statement on p. 103 about saving the world?
- Does privilege make it easier for individuals to start a revolution, or does Nate’s experience of oppression give him the necessary background to advocate for social change?
- What is Tash’s role in the story of revolution?
As in many novels, Wakefield’s characters represent different aspects of society.
Mr Reid: resistance
Consider the importance of Nate’s teacher, Mr Reid. On p. 98 we learn that he chose to leave a prestigious and well-resourced private school to teach at a socioeconomically disadvantaged school. Shortly afterwards, he comments that the path of least resistance is an easier choice than resistance itself (p. 102).
Introduced as the teacher who once went on a tirade against conditions in Bairstal (p. 18), it is apparent that Mr Reid is determined to make a difference. He recognises Nate’s intelligence, noting the young man’s tendency to keep a low profile and challenging him to instead share his thoughts and develop original ideas (pp. 68–69, 82). Despite Mr Reid’s good intentions, Nate often portrays school as meaningless and irrelevant, and his eventual escape from Bairstal is unrelated to his academic abilities.
As a class, discuss the following questions:
- What common cultural tropes about inspiring teachers has Wakefield used to present Mr Reid’s interactions with Nate?
- Consider this Conversation article that links aspirations to education outcomes. How does this relate to Nate’s low expectations? Is Mr Reid capable of presenting a more aspirational vision of post-school life to Nate, or are his efforts doomed to fail?
- Nate reflects on the limits of thoughts and words in bringing about change (pp. 222, 227). Do students feel that Mr Reid’s hero assignment is overly idealistic, or is it a useful exercise in visualising a more successful future? Read pp. 214–216. Does the class agree with the comparison between Mr Reid and Robin Williams, or do they think that he has real potential to help Nate see the world differently?
- Does Mr Reid ultimately help Nate, or is he represented as a well-meaning but ineffectual character? Trace their relationship, making sure to look closely at pp. 257–259.
NOTE: Students may not be acquainted with Robin Williams’ work, such as his role in Dead Poets Society. You could view an extract from this film, then discuss the teacher’s role in inspiring his students. The class may discuss other ‘teacher’ films they know.
Nate: individual agency
This is How We Change the Ending explores Nate’s coming-of-age in extremely challenging circumstances. His limited first-person perspective gives the reader an often cynical and fatalistic vision of the world. Nate feels unable to share his worries (p. 216) or change the parts of his life that make him unhappy (p. 196). Writing down his experiences (p. 149) acts as a form of empowerment, though it is Tash’s use of his words that suggests their power to challenge the status quo. Consider the report on the vandalised mural (pp. 153–155), which represents an attempt to protest the closure of Youth. Have Nate and Tash started a revolution, or does the news report confirm that their efforts and passions are doomed to oblivion?
Nate’s realisation that ‘this has to stop somewhere’ (p. 266) contrasts with his initial belief that he is destined to become another anonymous statistic, foreshadowing his final escape from Dec’s house. In the end, however, it is Nance who has to save him. Is this a realistic representation of the barriers faced by Wakefield’s adolescent protagonist? Or do you, as the reader, feel disappointed that Nate is portrayed as taking a relatively passive role in his own liberation? Is Nance the real hero of This is How We Change the Ending? Students can discuss and present their point of view to the class.
Nance: domestic violence
One of the themes in the novel is the impact of domestic violence. It is usually centred on the mother but has implications for the whole family.
Nate sees Nance as victimised but well-meaning: the mother of three-year-old twins (Jake and Otis), unable to help her most vulnerable child and powerless to withstand her partner’s mistreatment. When the reader meets her she has been locked out of Dec’s apartment (p. 15). How does this image of Nance, with her feet in the dirt and her stained T-shirt, foreshadow her circumstances?
Consider the various social and environmental factors that have defined Nance’s lot in life. Why is it immediately obvious that she is caught in an unhealthy relationship? What is unusual and touching about her relationship with her stepson? What would deeper understanding of her character add to the novel’s insights about disadvantage in Australian society?
Do students have sympathy for Nance? We learn that she has supportive parents who are willing to accommodate her and her children (including Nate) upon leaving her abusive relationship. What issues in her life remain largely unexplored?
This pamphlet, published by The Shelter for Abused Women & Children, provides good background information about domestic violence. Students can consider how closely Nance’s situation aligns with that of the women described.
- Having read the pamphlet, what can students say they have learned about women like Nance?
- Why do they think the author wanted to cover this social issue in a novel for young adults?
Consider Nance’s perspective on one of the following events, which the reader sees through Nate’s eyes:
- Dec locks Nance out of the apartment with the twins still inside (pp. 15–17)
- Nate recalls Nance’s stories about her parents, and Nance reveals that Dec is taking Jake to the races (pp. 64–65)
- Nance cuts herself, and Jake denigrates her in an echo of his father’s emotionally abusive tone (pp. 71–73)
- Nance reacts to Otis, who has an unspecified disability, saying one of his first words (pp. 85–87)
- Otis falls ill and Nance delays calling the hospital because the unreliable Dec is nowhere to be found, and he has forbidden her from seeking help (pp. 238–247)
- At the hospital, Nance reveals that Otis’ doctors are referring him to a specialist and expresses sorrow over missed opportunities (pp. 249–250)
- Nance decides to take the boys and leave Dec, revealing that she has been saving money for a year in order to escape (pp. 274–276)
- Nance decides to return to the apartment and take Nate with her to her parents’ house (pp. 294–296)
Note the absence of emotion from Nate’s tone and the emphasis on dialogue rather than observations. As readers, we can see the inherently sad nature of many of the things that happen to Nance and her children: Dec will probably mistreat Jake on the outing Nance has persuaded him to take; Jake has clearly absorbed his father’s callous attitude towards his mother; and one of O’s first words is an expletive.
Students can take one of these scenes and rewrite it from Nance’s point of view. They should see if they can fill in some of the details that Nate has omitted, particularly in terms of the setting.
Nate’s mother and other women
Nate feels genuine affection for Nance and portrays her as a helpless but kind victim of her circumstances. In his brief meetings with his mother, however, the focus and voice of his narration reveal an entirely different point of view. Narrative focus refers to the things the narrator notices about a scene; narrative voice relates to tone and attitude. We find out that Nate’s mother is called Angela, but her name is largely absent from the narrative. What does this say about Nate’s subjective point of view?
Students can read Nate’s initial meeting with Angela on pp. 116–122, and his brief and awkward visit to her apartment on pp. 201–207. Although the novel mainly focuses on dialogue and Nate’s internal monologues, Wakefield mentions several details about his mother that enable the reader to perceive her as simultaneously self-absorbed and vulnerable. Her newfound interest in fitness, clean eating regime (Nate has some amusing thoughts about the ancient grains) and neat, sterile beachside apartment all point to the fact that she has tried to improve her life since escaping Dec.
We may view Angela as a former drug user who is bravely attempting to change her ways with the questionable financial support of her ‘sponsor’. We might also view her as a selfish mother who has abandoned her son, since it is easier for her to thrive if she is not responsible for raising him. A third option is to view Angela as a victim of family violence who might be afraid to get involved with her son in case it results in contact with her menacing, vicious ex-partner.
Start a class discussion about Nate’s mum: is she courageous, cowardly or admirably resilient? Students may wish to consider Wakefield’s use of direct characterisation, where Nate tells the reader what to expect of his mother. They may also examine the use of archetypes, considering how Angela is presented as insecure, awkward and unable to connect with her abandoned son.
After exploring Nance and Mum, students may also wish to consider the enigmatic and freethinking Tash (introduced on p. 33), who shows a fleeting interest in Nate. Tash’s quest to save Youth (pp. 217–221) positions her as a strong character, and her graffiti murals are portrayed as a creative form of self-expression that is largely unappreciated by mainstream society (pp. 195–197). Her theory about Banksy being a woman is premised on her belief that men are too egotistical not to take credit for their art (p. 114). In a different vision of femininity, Wakefield depicts an incident of graphic violence involving the Youth volunteer Mim (pp. 36–37), who displays an altruistic commitment and genuine desire to help the kids of Bairstal (p. 31).
What do these courageous young women tell us about the novel’s portrayal of femininity? In a novel where Dec’s toxic masculinity is so prevalent, how do the minor female characters act as foils and suggest pathways towards a more harmonious and just world?
Imagine that the gym where Nate’s mother works has decided to make a short podcast about her transformation and newfound confidence in her life. How would she choose to present herself? Make a 2–3 minute recording where she discusses her efforts to change her life.
Phenomenology is the study of consciousness, with an emphasis on aspects of perspective and individual subjectivity. It is concerned with the importance of the metaphysical, the mind, our thoughts and our interior world. A phenomenological approach to novel studies privileges the way texts portray reality, including use of narrative voice, train of thought, interior monologue and references to dreams, desires, thoughts and reflections. This can be a useful lens for examining a novel written from a limited first-person perspective. It emphasises the importance of focus (what a character chooses to notice within a scene) and voice (the style of narration and the tone that is established).
To explore the importance of individual subjectivity in This is How We Change the Ending, consider how point of view is developed:
- On p. 14, Nate describes the things that he writes in his notebook.
- What does the focus on his creativity tell students about his character?
- Given Nate’s limited educational opportunities, how does his desire to write become a revolutionary act and enable Wakefield to present him as a complex character?
- Wakefield often uses internal monologues to illustrate Nate’s concern for big picture issues, and to show the importance of reading in his life (p. 20). The novel is full of quotes that he repeats throughout, further referencing the revolutionary power of literature.
- What are Nate’s concerns, and how do they present him as an intelligent teenager with a social conscience (despite his underlying cynicism and sense of futility)?
- Wakefield frequently uses direct characterisation, which means that the narrator tells the reader how to view and judge other characters. Consider Nate’s comments about his friend Merrick (pp. 9–10), alongside Merrick’s eventual descent into alienation and despair.
- What aspects of Australian society is Wakefield trying to explore and critique through her depiction of the intelligent but despairing Merrick?
- Wakefield avoids giving too much backstory – the story is told from Nate’s perspective, so our understanding of other characters’ past lives and experiences is limited. Consider Dec, who appears to be a simple character with no redeeming qualities.
- Are there any factors that might have driven Dec to display behaviour that is consistently violent, selfish and misogynistic?
- How do Dec’s actions constitute a commentary on aspects of toxic masculinity in working class Australian society?
The role of women in This is How We Change the Ending
1. Analytical writing
Having explored the role that women play in the novel, students can prepare an extended response to the following question:
African leader and revolutionary Thomas Sankara was a proponent for women’s rights, as this quote demonstrates.
Although This is How We Change the Ending features a male protagonist, it is the female characters who often drive the action. Despite encountering difficult circumstances, the women in Wakefield’s novel show resilience and strive to change their worlds. Compare TWO of these women and examine how they are portrayed within the text.
2. Visual representation
Another way that students can respond to their exploration of Wakefield’s women is to produce a Prezi or Canva presentation. This should summarise the importance of the female characters and address the question:
What does This is How We Change the Ending have to say about the transformative power of relationships between men and women?
A social commentary
Without engaging in didactic social commentary, Vikki Wakefield offers us an intimate view into poverty and disadvantage – an often neglected aspect of modern Australian society. Although the novel often uses established tropes, Wakefield aims to present adolescent characters whose quests to survive their harsh environment and establish their own identities is poignant and inspiring.
There are many documentaries that will help students understand just how pervasive poverty is in Australia, like SBS’s The Truth About Newstart, which aims to bust open the stereotype of the ‘dole bludger’. Students may also like to read ‘7 things you wanted to know about poverty but didn’t want to ask’, also from the SBS.
- What are some stereotypes about people who live in poverty?
- What is the purpose and importance of short films and articles such as those from the SBS?
- How does this media provide a means to address the power imbalance caused by income inequality?
- How and why has the SBS tried to counteract negative stereotypes through their exploration of poverty in Australia? Have they been successful?
How do we shape our identity in terms of our relationship to culture and our affinity for particular texts?
The characters in This is How We Change the Ending constantly quote from other texts to express their beliefs and emotions. The idea of ‘cultural capital’ is central to the work of French theorist Pierre Bourdieu, who explored the symbolic elements that people engage with as a result of their social class and life experiences. Students can read an explanation of cultural capital, then:
- reflect on their own place within Australian society, and what aspects of ‘cultural capital’ they possess
- read the prologue to the novel (the hunting trip) and answer:
- What symbols does the author use to indicate social class?
- How does she utilise mise-en-scène by including particular objects in the scene?
- What ‘type’ of Australian is Dec, and where does he fit within society?
It is important to note the relevance of the setting to the characters’ experiences. There are many areas in Australia where large public housing estates have been established, and where socioeconomic disadvantage is widespread. Some of these areas are inner-city, but others are located on the fringes, and it is possible to see poverty and disadvantage existing close to affluence and privilege.
Although Wakefield’s novel is not explicitly set in Sydney’s south-west, there are some excellent documentaries and articles that explore the impact of intergenerational poverty and structural disadvantage in these areas. They can watch excerpts from ‘Growing Up Poor’, a Four Corners episode focusing on children from the suburb of Claymore, and read the ABC News article about redevelopment of the same area (and how government decisions and neglect have led to poor outcomes for the residents).
Wakefield’s sensitive writing reveals that individuals do not have to be identified or imprisoned by place; rather, they can challenge the limitations of their circumstances as they struggle to acquire cultural capital. In saying that, the novel has a strong realist focus, representing the impact of social class on people’s lives. Nate’s experiences of poverty, alienation and disadvantage shape his beliefs about his own agency and his ability to lead a positive and productive life.
- Consider the description of Dec on pp. 19–21, and how Wakefield juxtaposes this with Nate’s account of his own willingness to read.
- How do the characters act as foils to one another?
- How does this excerpt foreshadow the importance of cultural capital in the story?
- Wakefield introduces us to the exclusive halls of Saint Monica’s (pp. 95–97) and the apartment where Nate’s mum lives (pp. 201–207). Both represent environments and lifestyles that are foreign to Nate.
- How does Wakefield utilise mise-en-scène through Nate’s detailed observations of these locations?
- What are the explicit and implicit references to aspects of cultural capital?
The concept of intersectionality relates to marginalisation, discrimination and social violence. It refers to the different aspects of an individual’s identity that can result in social stigma, rejection and judgement from others (a useful overview is available from the Victorian Government).
In This is How We Change the Ending, Wakefield focuses on individuals who are relegated to the sidelines and exist on the fringes of mainstream Australian society. Nate relies on his writing to construct a different version of reality for himself (p. 14), with the power of his words representing his revolutionary spirit.
By representing a family affected by socioeconomic disadvantage, disability, domestic violence and criminality, the novel encourages readers to empathise with those who possess limited agency and face seemingly insurmountable barriers in their efforts to change their lives.
Many of the minor characters are affected by discrimination and disadvantage relating to intersectionality. Nate’s younger half-brother Otis, whose family cannot access the professional help he needs, grows up in a socioeconomically deficient environment marked by family violence. Nate’s mother Angela is a former drug addict who lacks the confidence to connect with her teenage son and depends on a sponsor to enjoy a higher standard of living. Nance experiences a downturn in social class through her relationship with Dec, living as an unemployed young mother of two in a social housing estate. All of these characters encourage readers to consider their own personal biases and reflect on privilege and disadvantage.
Otis, in particular, causes us to reflect on our relative privilege. Wakefield has stated that:
In a way Nate’s family is a microcosm of society, and Otis represents the most vulnerable of all. The responsibility for his future and wellbeing shouldn’t fall on one person; it’s on all of us, our whole society, to protect the most vulnerable and give them every opportunity to reach their potential. Otherwise, what are we fighting for?
Privilege is not just a perk of the upper class: it exists in all levels of society, including the working and lower classes. Nate must become more self-aware, more accepting of his relative privilege (in comparison to Otis), and it’s through O that Nate is forced to expand his world view. In the family unit, Nate has power, even if he thinks he is powerless. He learns that survival is not enough – love is not enough. It’s a measure of his character that he might not be able to stand up for himself, but he will fight for O.
– Vikki Wakefield, October 2021 (reproduced with permission from an email chain between the author and unit writer)
Otis is frequently juxtaposed with his twin brother, Jake, who acts as his foil. Although he does not have a voice in the novel, with events narrated solely through Nate’s perspective, it is clear that his inclusion is significant. Wakefield presents Otis with pathos and sensitivity, and he becomes a catalyst for change in the story.
- Students are to write a personal reflection on how their past experiences have influenced the way they view the characters and events in This is How We Change the Ending.
- Select one of the minor characters (e.g. Nance, Dec, Tash, Merrick, Nate’s mum) and reflect on their actions throughout the novel.
- What aspect of Australian society do they encourage us to critique?
- How do others react to them?
- How is their ability to change their circumstances impacted by the effects of intersectionality?
- What do students think is the purpose of This is How We Change the Ending? They should carefully consider aspects of textual form, including the composer’s intent; the structure of the novel as a first-person account replete with internal monologues; the intended audience; and its use of young adult fiction conventions.
- What do students think the author wants the reader to take away from the novel?
- How has reading the novel encouraged students to understand intersectionality, or to advocate for social change?
- Has it given students a heightened understanding of disadvantage?
- There are many social issues that affect Nate, his family and his community. The potential demolition of YouthWorks gives the adolescent characters a reason to advocate for their own support from the community. Students can write a petition addressed to someone in a position of power to persuasively advocate for Youth’s continuation and justify its importance to the community.
No text exists in a vacuum; each one builds on the countless texts that came before. In This is How We Change the Ending, allusions to popular culture and canonical works demonstrate the power of literature. In many cases they show that Nate values his literary experiences and sees himself through literature, but they also add meaning for those who bring knowledge of other texts to their reading of the novel.
- Students can consider the exchanges between Nate and Merrick, which are rife with references to films and (sometimes) novels.
- What do they tell us about the characters?
- Why would they use elements of other texts to explore their world instead of relying on their own words?
- What does this tell us about the importance of intertextuality in the novel?
- Students can trace the references below to see why they are significant. They can add any others they find along the way.
|Good Will Hunting
|Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves
|Dead Poets Society
|The Life of Pi
|‘Ambition’ by Edgar Albert Guest
Have students consider the following question:
What texts or writers would you quote or mention in a book about your life? Why?
The concept of the sublime relates to the combination of fear and awe experienced while contemplating something that is vast, terrifying, majestic or simply immense. Originally discussed by Edmund Burke in 1757, the sublime produces a strong emotional effect and is relevant to the contemplation of art.
Despite his limited experiences of the world, living in isolation and poverty on the fringes of society, Nate has a sense of the vastness of the universe. Read the internal monologue about his worries and wonderings on p. 20. Do Nate’s concerns resonate with your students? Do they feel an affinity with Nate, or does his philosophical and reflective nature make him appear intimidating and intellectual?
After reading p. 20, students can consider their own existential concerns and do some free writing about important ideas and issues that concern them.
Rich assessment task (receptive and productive modes)
Invite students to reflect on how texts can change the world through their representation of social injustices. What is the purpose of Wakefield’s novel, given that it portrays an unconventional hero’s journey of self-growth and his efforts to overcome the limitations of his disadvantaged environment? What is the responder meant to take away from the novel? Remember that it deliberately avoids any attempt to be didactic or inspirational, and instead concentrates on achieving verisimilitude: being true to life as a realist novel.
Students should consider how their own life experiences, social values and understanding of the world have shaped their attitude to the novel. Were there aspects of the story that they found shocking, confronting or relatable?
They can now write a personal essay exploring their own reading of This is How We Change the Ending. In their response, students will analyse examples from the novel and link their personal reaction to aspects of their own experience.
Metafiction or motif?
Metafiction is writing that is conscious of itself or its audience. Students can search the web for a fuller definition and consider how it applies to This is How We Change the Ending.
The power of reading and writing is an important theme in this novel. Wakefield refers to many texts and authors, as well as the acts of reading and writing themselves.
Nate recognises that the things he reads to Nance can transport her to a happier place (p. 16). He reveals that he was written about Otis, but only shares the opening lines, so Nance asks him to let her know how it ends (pp. 16–17). The novel constantly comments on the need for change or a new ending. We start to see the importance of being able to rewrite the story of our own lives: writing is the way that Nate controls his space and feels some agency. Writing is, however, a private act – a status that Tash does not seem keen on maintaining (p. 191). She has already stolen Nate’s words for her graffiti (p. 150).
What do each of the following quotes reveal about Nate’s relationship to writing?
- I suppose they’re a kind of alternative reality, a possible reality … (p. 14)
- My notebooks are like my own private well and my words are like stones: I drop them in the well so I don’t have to carry them around. I need the well. It stops me from self-destructing. (pp. 14–15)
- Mim: ‘I see you writing all the time, but do you read?’ (p. 32)
- Mim: ‘What’s in your little black book? I’ve always wanted to ask. Is it like a diary? Coming-of-age stuff?’ (p. 112)
- Nance thinks I write things down because I want them to be different. It’s not only that – I write them down because I want to remember exactly how it feels to be me, right now. (p. 149)
- I pick up my notebook. It’s all there – how things could be. (p. 251)
After reading the novel, students can consider whether it is metafictive or whether it uses writing as a motif. They can argue for either side.
Young adult literary tropes
Students can read the judges’ comments on This is How We Change the Ending from the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. They highlight Wakefield’s refreshing approach to well-known tropes in young adult fiction, which are listed in the first paragraph of the citation.
- Apart from the tropes in this list, what do students expect to find in a young adult novel?
- Why do students think adolescent fiction explores common tropes?
The judges praise Wakefield’s story for being ‘remarkable’, despite it not being entirely new.
- How can a story using common tropes be remarkable?
- What are the features of this book that help it convey a sense of originality?
Rich assessment tasks (receptive and productive modes)
1. Imaginative recreation
Throughout the novel, Wakefield explores how Nate is both marginalised and supported by society. We see his interactions with his family, teachers and wider community through his involvement at Youth and school. We read his satirical comments on efforts to engage disaffected youth, including his scathing response to the Body Positivity workshop (p. 209) and his reflections on his own perceived lack of opportunity following the careers expo (pp. 98–102). The struggle to save Youth – Nate’s only source of societal support – encourages the reader to consider how individuals can be prompted to succeed despite their circumstances.
For this task, students are to write in the voice of an adult Nate, who is now employed in the community where he grew up. Nate is composing a funding proposal for a program to support young adults in similar circumstances to those he faced as a teen. The proposal should outline a modest but potentially effective program that differs from anything Nate experienced in the novel. Students should include:
- An introduction where Nate briefly reflects on his own experiences (students can invent some details to explain how he flourished after leaving Dec’s house with Nance)
- An overview of the community’s previous efforts to engage with disaffected young adults, in which students discuss the effect that Youth had on Nate and his friends
- An outline of the proposed program and why it is needed to ensure a more socially just society
2. Persuasive writing
On p. 157, Thomas (a volunteer at Youth) quotes Archbishop Desmond Tutu on neutrality in the face of injustice.
This is How We Change the Ending contains numerous examples of oppression: Nance as a victim of family violence, and as a mother unable to access support for her vulnerable young son; Nate’s position in a socioeconomically disadvantaged family; and his friends’ experiences of discrimination and stigma from an often unsympathetic society.
Students will choose one of the social issues outlined in the novel, and consider how best to use the power of the written word to right this particular injustice. Is there a need to inform others through a series of pertinent social media posts? Would a letter to a newspaper editor or politician best communicate your concerns? Might a website be an effective means of raising awareness?
In 800–1,000 words, students will compose a written text to ‘change the ending’ of the issue. They will then write a 300–400-word statement justifying their choice of textual form, and explaining why it is likely to have the most significant impact in terms of raising awareness and encouraging action.
3. Personal response
Students are to compose a piece of writing that combines their personal perspective on Wakefield’s characters with a reflective understanding of how disadvantaged groups are marginalised in contemporary society.
This response should use a first-person narrative voice and aim to explore the complex nature of issues relating to the representation of disadvantaged youth.
Students may wish to discuss the young adults who attend YouthWorks in This is How We Change the Ending, and consider how Wakefield’s portrayal aims to counteract the often patronising way such individuals are spoken about in mainstream texts. They could refer to Merrick’s acuity with mathematics and his wealth of cultural references; Nate’s caring attitudes towards Nance and Otis, as well as his concern for political issues; and the contrast between Tash’s deprived background and her artistic ability.
Responses should be 1,000–1,200 words in length, and include some background research on inequality in Australian society. Students may use intertextual references and consider some of the portrayals of marginalised communities referred to throughout this unit.