The History of Mischief by Rebecca Higgie

The word ‘mischief’ has always summoned up for me an unpleasant memory of being in the stuffy, bureaucratic waiting room of the local teacher’s union with my little sister as my mother went to another room for a meeting. Looking back, I can imagine her reservations about leaving us alone in the waiting room, and she no doubt told us to behave ourselves.   

Unfortunately for everyone involved, that waiting room contained a water cooler. We started to experiment with its buttons and levers and were soon amazed by its water giving-properties, the way the water flew across the room, the cool feeling of it on our hot skin as we became more and more enchanted with this magical silver machine.

My next memory is being escorted to wherever my mother was, and standing there dripping wet as we were declared mischievous, and could she kindly supervise her children?

So I’ve always felt mortified about that word. But this book made me both understand and feel better about the urge to make mischief that came over me that day.

The story is told in two parts: in the first, Jesse is living with her sister, Kay, and recovering from the car accident that killed their parents. They move to their grandmother’s house – she is now in an aged care home – and there they discover an old book, The History Of Mischief.

The story then alternates between Jesse’s daily life and chapters of the book, which roam from hot-air balloon-making in wartime Paris to Ethiopia to the salt mines in Poland to the British Library and more, with each lively and beautifully told story drawing on real-life history and places as well as myths.

I loved the way a classic children’s story, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, was woven into the book as Jesse and her friend make origami paper cranes in the library together, and Jesse bestows some mischief of her own with them. I also felt at home in the real-life sections set in some of Perth’s libraries, including the State Library and Guildford Library, which describe how libraries work, including the wonders of the inter-library loan and the rare books room. As someone who spent a lot of time in libraries when my kids were little, I loved these celebratory descriptions of their inner workings.

The final section of the book is quite wonderful, in that it meanders back to the past to resolve the question of where The History of Mischief originated from in a way that is both satisfying and also a lesson in how stories come to life in the minds of their creators. I can’t say more than that without giving it away, but it was impressive and very moving.

Rebecca Higgie took ten years to craft this book, and you can see the reading and travels and discoveries of those years in her storytelling. It is a book that demonstrates the value of wide-ranging research and taking time to really develop a story that, as a fairly impatient writer and person, I found useful.  

The History of Mischief has been categorised as a Young Adult novel, but it’s also absolutely one for adults and anyone who loves old books and lost stories and the worlds that a library card can open up to you. It’s a reminder that that there is no ‘right’ way to research, that no absolute truth can ever be uncovered, that all history is partial and mostly told by the winners, but that other, hidden stories can be found if you care to look.

The History of Mischief is published by Fremantle Press – see more on their website.

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