Teachers Notes for The House on River Terrace









A Novel for Young Adult by James Moloney


                             Shortlisted for CBCA Book of the Year, Older Readers 1996

The House on River Terrace is set inBrisbane, at the foot of the Kangaroo Point cliffs.  It tells the story of sixteen year old Ben Fielding, the son of a conservative politician, Rob Fielding.  Rob is creating a documentary on his family and their now derelict property, Gwendolan House.  In reading old family diaries, Ben finds himself caught up in the family’s history and drawn into the lives of his predecessors, discovering previously unknown convict links and the story of his immigrant grandmother.  Ben also befriends a street kid, Jess, a relationship that finds him clashing with his father’s political stance.  Jess challenges Ben to see himself, his father and his own abilities and beliefs in a different light.  Through the course of events Ben gains a better understanding of the complexities of families, social issues and the role that the media can play in manipulating people’s attitudes.

As well as being a wonderful story in its own right, The House on River Terrace would lend itself well to an integrated unit study in English and SOSE.


Born in Sydney, James Moloney grew up and was educated in Brisbane. He completed teacher training at Griffith University and also holds diplomas in Teacher Librarianship and Computer Education. He has taught in a number of Queensland State Schools as both a classroom teacher and a librarian. His experiences as a young teacher in western Queensland have had a profound effect on his writing, especially in his early novels.

James now writes full-time and has written over twenty books for children and Young Adults. His first novel, Crossfire was listed as a Notable Book in the CBCA awards in 1993. His short novel Swashbuckler won the Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Award in 1996 and in the following year, A Bridge to Wiseman's Cove was named Book of the Year in the CBCA's Older Readers category. His other titles have appeared regularly on shortlists for literary prizes and children's choice awards ever since.

James says: 'I like to get inside the head of today's adolescents, to connect with the passion they have for life and understand what they care about. The challenge then is to express it in a story. That challenge keeps me young. I love it.'


There are a number of significant themes in this novel that could be examined. These include:

  • Father/son relationships
  • inhibition vs freedom of expression
  • personal vs social responsibilities and goals
  • the power of the media
  • social history studies

  convict history

  the Early settlement of Brisbane


                                      contemporary society

Father/son relationships

Ben and his father have a somewhat strained relationship.

Make a list of the issues they clash over during the course of the novel.

An unfamiliar dread lurched into his stomach as he realized that he didn’t trust his father with Maeve’s precious story. (p40)

In what ways would Ben not ‘trust’ his father with the story?

What do you think causes these differences of opinion? Are they fundamentally different people?

Ben’s mother appears to be a much softer person than Rob Fielding. Why do you think the family’s life is so influenced by his father? Is this a typical family dynamic even today?

Throughout Ben’s family history there are stories of fathers and sons whose attitudes differed from each other. Why do you think this happens? Is the generation gap to blame for these differing attitudes?

Inhibition vs freedom of expression

Ben is impressed by Jess’s art. He wished he could draw with such freedom (p82)

When he finally lets himself go he draws a wonderful portrait of Jess on the walls of the gazebo. (p100)

How does Jess manage to draw the artist out of Ben? What values does she teach him?

How would Rob Fielding react to this behaviour?

Ben is not the only family member whose emotions and self-expression is stifled.

Rob Fielding had trained his face to snap easily into the smile of a politician, which could be switched off just as quickly as it appeared. (p6)

In what ways could Rob Fielding be seen to be a ‘typical’ politician?

When Ms Daley was around his father began to change, to harden, to cool (p18)

Do you think that there is a difference between Rob Fielding the man and Rob Fielding the politician? Do you think that Rob’s personal beliefs and behaviours are inhibited by his social status? List any evidence you find of this in the novel.

Why do you think Gwendolan House may have ‘spoken’ to Ben in a way that it never would to Rob Fielding?

Personal vs social responsibilities and goals

Archie Fielding teaches his son, Michael, that people should always come first, not nations, not empires, nor even a family’s business. Don’t be afraid to stand firm, Mick, even if it’s your own family at fault. There were times when I knew in my soul that we Fieldings were wrong in what we were doing….Remember, Mick. It’s people. It’s people that matter. (p111)

How does Archie change over the years from a young man to a father?

What factors in his life may have contributed to this change?

In what ways does Rob Fielding neglect to put people first?

Rob Fielding was campaigning against Street kids – they’re a menace and the government is mishandling the whole situation. (p38)

Why would Rob Fielding see street kids as nothing more than a menace that needed to be removed from society? From this statement in what way do you think he would believe the government is mishandling the situation?

Rob Fielding tells the street kids to go home, asking them “What about your parents?”

Ben relates to Archie’s uncertainty and browbeating, his loneliness and isolation. (p74)

The same personal characteristics are mirrored through all generations of Joseph Fielding’s family. Make a list of the socially sympathetic and unsympathetic characters in the Fielding family. Are there any specific factors in their lives that cause these characters to have these attitudes?

Ben is hesitant to appear on the current affairs program as he knows it will be bad for his father. Do you think there is some level on which Rob Fielding would actually have approved of Ben agreeing to speak up for the street kids?

The power of the media

There is no doubt that the media today can have a very significant impact upon our society. Much of what we know, or believe we know about the world, we know bacuase of what we read and hear about through the media.

A number of indications are given throughout the novel about the ways in which the media can and does distort the facts.

  • But we can’t put to air something that is so blatantly inaccurate?
  • Can’t we? Does it really matter? Who’s going to know the difference? If my research people couldn’t find out who built it, no historian’s going to pick you up on it.(p78)
  • Poisoning Aborigines? We can’t put that kind of thing in the program. It will alter our focus altogether. The story of the early Fieldings says a lot about Australia that we want people to remember and be proud of. That’s the story we’re trying to tell. (p79)

Why do Ben and his father feel so differently about the documentary?

What do these comments suggest about the accuracy of much of what we see in the media? What things may affect the accuracy of the content?

Can you think of any examples of the ‘sanitising’ of history?

Social history studies

a) convict history

When the research into the Fielding family is first undertaken, Rob Fielding remarks that a link to the convicts would be a real bonus. (p9)

It is only since the bicentenary in 1988 that it has become fashionable to be able to prove convict ancestry. What brought about this change?

Joseph says to Maeve, This place is growing quickly and I will grow with it. You should stay too. There’s more opportunity here for the likes of us. (p28)

Consider the plight of the convicts. What opportunities were there in colonial Queensland that would never have existed for Maeve back in Ireland?

b) the Early settlement of Brisbane

Using local and State libraries, the students could be taught research skills such as how to gather and interpret primary sources.

Research the key historic events referred to throughout Archie Fielding’s diaries. eg What happened in 1866 that Archie referred to as The Great Disaster?

Compare Brisbane today with the information contained in Archie’s diaries. His family made their money from the sawmill and the shipping industry. What are the main industries in Brisbane today?

Research a prominent Brisbane settler or an historic building.

c) the Aborigines

The house wouldn’t have been built if the Aborigines hadn’t helped to bring in the timber. And they were cheated. Poisoned. Even Archie knew it was happening but he wouldn’t stop it. (p78)

Research the role played by the Aborigines in the early settlement.

Was Archie justified in not doing anything to stop the Aborigines being given the bad home brew?

In what ways do we see this same attitude reflected in our treatment of Aborigines today?

In what way is Archie and Albert’s attitude to the Aborigines mirrored by Ben and Rob’s attitude to street kids?


After the Second World War, Brisbane saw an influx of migrants.

Research the situation in Lithuania when the Russians moved in to drive out the Germans during WWII.

Research Prisoner of War Camps.

Why could Bill Fielding and Elena understand each other so well? In what ways would their experiences have been similar?

Further reading: Shaun Tan’s picture book The Arrival is a powerful portrayal of the migrant experience.

g) contemporary society

How are street kids perceived by the general public? Conduct a survey in your local community regarding people’s attitudes towards street kids and what should be done to solve ‘the problem’.

Create a time capsule for people to discover in 200 years. What are the important aspects of our society that you would want to include?

Many people today argue that Australia is a classless society. From the characters and attitudes portrayed in this novel would you agree with this sentiment?


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