Bernie Shakeshaft (with James Knight)
Back on Track
Hachette Australia, Sydney, 2019
ISBN-13: 978-0733642128 

 Back on Track

 

"There is an aspect of faith to the story. While Bernie started to question 'the whole Catholic thing' during his late primary school years, Knight writes that his parents' faith - outworked through such things as regularly helping out at an orphanage in Sydney's Baulkham Hills - 'indisputably shaped his attitudes and the type of person he is today."

Bernie Shakeshaft has what you might call a heart for kids, especially those society deems "troubled", Back on Track charts his own passage from a rebel youth to, via a long search for purpose, to eventually become the founder of youth-focused, Armidale-based organisation BackTrack.

Written largely in Bernie's own words gleaned from a series of interviews he had with journalist James Knight (and beware, the text contains numerous expletives), this is not a smooth or slick account but, a down-to-earth and, at times, raw rendering of his story and how, by bringing together youths and dogs, he's been able to start a program which has hit far above its weight in terms of impact.

The son of devout, socially-minded Catholic parents, Bernie was the second of five kids, described by his mother as the one with the "most get up and go". He had, in some ways, an idyllic childhood in rural New South Wales where he was able to indulge his love of sport before, following a move to Sydney, he started to rebel, taking dangerous risks (especially with cars).

One of his teachers, Fr Liam Horsfall, however, took an interest in Bernie's progress at school and invited him on a school trip to India at the end of year 11. It was, says Bernie, "the first real turning point of my life". Spending time with Mother Teresa at her hospice in Kolkata where the boys were expected to help out and where they were brought face-to-face with the suffering and death that enveloped the poor, he started to question his own life choices.

Back in Australia, he completed his schooling after TAFE before entering teachers' college. About this time he was involved in a couple of bad car accidents and, feeling he was "looking for a different life", pulled out of his studies and went to live in the Snowy Mountains, living rough and doing odd jobs.

Through his work there, he encountered Paul and Annette Roots, former drovers who owned property at Adelong. Hired to work for them (and live on their property), Bernie finally "landed in a classroom that suited him", working with horses and dogs in the open air. It proved another turning point.

The book then proceeds to chart how Bernie went on to work in a range of jobs including as a ringer on a Northern Territory cattle station partly owned by the Packer family, a dingo trapper for the NT Parks and Wildlife Service and, later, as a youth welfare officer. It was during this time that he was able to renew connections he'd made with Indigenous Australian youth (it's a big theme in the book). 

The reader is eventually taken back to Armidale and the origins of BackTrack which uses working dogs, who travel the country to compete in jumping trials, to help young people find their way back to a purposeful and fulfilling life.

There is an aspect of faith to the story. While Bernie started to question "the whole Catholic thing" during his late primary school years, Knight writes that his parents' faith - outworked through such things as regularly helping out at an orphanage in Sydney's Baulkham Hills - "indisputably shaped his attitudes and the type of person he is today".

But perhaps the biggest lesson of the book is how the investment others made into Bernie's life has came full circle through the creation of BackTrack. Back on Track shows clearly how, with the aid of those who saw Bernie's potential and later, his vision, the organisation has been able to help transform the lives of youth on the margins (the promotional materials for the book say that, taking into account the communities BackTrack is supporting in places like Broken Hill and Grafton, the work of the organisation has helped more than 1,000 young people "find a new beginning"). Inspiring stuff.