While on a visit to the lovely State Library of NSW last week, I had the pleasure of viewing a number of volumes from the Library’s collection of rare books, with the Library’s rare book curator, Maggie Patton, in honour of Rare Book Week. Not being a collector, I didn’t even know Australia celebrated this week. Nor did I know what makes a book ‘rare’.
The talk covered a range of items from the collection and visitors were able to see the books and learn why they are considered rare and why (and sometimes how) the Library acquired them.
On display were the first book published in Australia (in 1802), New South Wales General Standing Orders, comprising Government and General Orders issued between 1791 and 1802 (sounds riveting, doesn’t it?) and the first novel published here (convict Henry Savery’s three-volume Quintus Servinton. It was published in 1831 under a pseudonym – because it was illegal for convicts to be published!
Another book on display was James Hardy Vaux’s Vocabulary of Flash Language, published in 1819. It’s a dictionary of the slang used by members of the ‘criminal class’ and is said to be the first dictionary produced in this country. I imagine this document would have been of great interest to authorities at the time, given that criminals outnumbered ‘free’ residents in those early years and the ‘criminal problem’ weighed heavily on the minds of those in power here in the colony and back in Britain. As an aside, I do find it ironic that the first two people to hold the post of Government Printer, George Hughes and George Howe, were both from convict backgrounds.
The first children’s book in Australia was by Charlotte Barton, A Mother’s Offering to her Children, published in 1841. Acclaimed Australian writer Kate Forsyth is Charlotte’s 4 x Granddaughter and has embarked on a project to bring to life the hidden story of this remarkable woman. According to Kate, a first edition copy of this children’s book is now worth $60,000. I guess that might make it a shoe-in for the ‘rare’ category!
You can find out more about Kate and her search for Charlotte at https://kateforsyth.com.au/writing-journal/the-fascinating-story-of-the-woman-who-wrote-australias-first-childrens-book-my-great-great-great-grandmother
These books were all of interest because of their historical significance, but beauty was also on display. I’ve included a couple of pictures of my favourites so you can get the idea. There is so much to love about books – covers, bindings, edge decorations, and of course contents!
For pure historical interest and age, I could not go past The booke of the common prayer, 1549, published during the reign of the short lived Edward VI (son of Henry VIII). This was one of the early religious texts printed in English rather than Latin, as Edward was a fervent supporter of the Protestant religion. It’s an example of how a book can hold so much of historical significance and speak to the political and social contexts of the time in which it is produced.
Here is the link to the Sydney program for 2019 Rare Book Week – have a look at the amazing range of activities, tours and talks and it might just inspire you to look out for the 2020 program and join in.
The Woman in the Green Dress (Pub 2019 by HQ Fiction) is Tea Cooper’s latest historical fiction and the first by her that I have read. I enjoyed it very much and I’m putting her on my ‘favourite authors’ list – which is, I might add, rather long. It’s always a pleasure to discover a ‘new’ author especially when they have written lots of other books, so there are plenty of others to enjoy. I’m not at all sure why I’d not discovered this author before now!
The reason I picked up this particular novel was its setting, both time and place. It is a dual narrative / dual timeline novel, with two interweaving stories that play out separately, but of course overlap at crucial moments – to say any more would be to give spoilers so I’ll leave it at that, except to say that I particularly enjoy dual time frame novels. There’s something about them that when done well, brings the past more fully into the present.
There are two main settings in this book: Mogo Creek, a remote tiny settlement on the Hawkesbury River, and Sydney. The dual time settings are the mid nineteenth century, and the (slightly more modern) early twentieth century – just after WWI draws to its bloody conclusion. I was attracted to the Hawkesbury setting because it is where my own roots lie, though my ancestors settled in the more ‘tameable’ farming land around Windsor and Richmond. For readers of The Secret River by Kate Grenville (one of my all-time favourite and most admired historical fiction novels) Mogo Creek is not too far from the area explored in that book.
There are two protagonists: Della, in the 1853 story, and Fleur, who we meet in the novel’s opening, in 1918. Fleur is an ordinary English woman who lost her parents in the bombing of London during the war. Added to that, her husband Hugh, whom she married in a hasty ceremony just before he went off to fight, is reported as killed in action – but Fleur refuses to believe it. After all, there has been no official telegram, no parcel of his personal items sent to her. Her life turns a somersault when she is informed that Hugh has left her a substantial fortune and parcels of land – in far off Australia. Not a particularly adventurous woman, Fleur is astonished to find herself on a ship bound for Australia. She is convinced she can ‘sort out the misunderstanding’, return to England and wait for Hugh.
In this she is proven wrong. She finds herself trying to get to the bottom of the mystery, but obstacles present themselves. Eventually she travels to Mogo Creek herself and meets a strange old man there. She discovers other clues in the boarded up Curio Shop of Wonders, a Sydney store owned by Hugh’s family for many years.
Gradually we come to see how Fleur’s story overlaps with Della’s. Della is a taxidermist, an unusual occupation for a woman in the nineteenth century. Della is sympathetic to the Aboriginal people she knows – the Darkinjung of the upper Hawkesbury – and distressed to learn of brutal raids and attacks against them by some white settlers and also by the collectors of wildlife ‘specimens’ for her aunt’s store in Sydney – the very same Curio Shop that puzzles Fleur in the later timeline. I enjoyed the descriptions of Sydney across the two timelines, as well as the more rugged parts of the Hawkesbury river and its valleys. The characters of Fleur and Della are both very likeable and we see how they each change as the novel progresses.
A motif throughout the novel is the opal, which in the mid nineteenth century garnered a reputation as a stone that brought bad luck to its owners. It was interesting to read of the very beginnings of the opal industry in Australia as it is now an iconic Australian gemstone, and (as far as I know) it no longer brings bad luck!
Sometimes in dual narrative stories, the reader needs to suspend disbelief a little at the neat way the stories get tied together. In The Woman in the Green Dress, the clues are planted throughout, resulting in a climax and resolution that feels satisfying and believable. I enjoyed this novel and have already added another of Tea Cooper’s books to my ‘To Be Read’ pile.
Reflections on the Historical Novel Society Australasia Conference 2019, 25/26 October, Parramatta NSW
1: It is enormously endearing for an audience to be referred to as ‘Dear hearts’, which Kate Forsyth (HNSA patron) did as she began her introductory address. She went on to deliver a call to action: to let everyone know of the active and vibrant community of lovers of historical fiction in our part of the world. https://hnsa.org.au/kate-forsyth/
2: Keynote speaker Paula Morris, from NZ, spoke of her Maori culture in which history is seen as a spiral, and reminded us that all characters are a combination of their past and present – and that ‘historical figures’ existed in their own contemporary world and didn’t know they were to become historical. Interesting to contemplate that for our own times and selves.
Literature can make visible the unbroken lines with the past and the unbroken lines to the future.Paula Morris
3: Jackie French, Conference Guest of Honour, never sets out to write a book- she writes scenes which then become a book.
4: Kelly Gardiner, in the session ‘The Versatile Writer’, divulged that she is working on a book about her Great Grandmother who was active in Australia’s Suffrage and Women’s Peace movements.
Definitely a book I’d like to read. https://hnsa.org.au/kelly-gardiner/
5: Jane Caro shares my interest in the life of Elizabeth I, so much so that she wrote a trilogy about her. In Jane’s view, female heroic figures often had to pay horribly for their independence. Not so Elizabeth, says Jane:
Elizabeth I became her own Prince and rescued herself.
6: Paula Morris again, on ‘Respectful research’:
Living in the internet era it’s easy to think we should have access to everything and all information. Not everyone has the right to everything. The notions of ‘no secrets’ and ‘nothing is sacred’ are problematic.Paula Morris
7: If you have emotional connection to a place it comes out naturally in the words you write. (Lucy Treloar on the resonance of place in fiction.) https://hnsa.org.au/lucy-treloar/
8: A strong pitch to a literary agent or publisher will contain the following: Emotion, a strong sense of the protagonist and their challenge, and the stakes will be clear. (First Pages Pitch Contest)
9: When considering using personal or family stories as the basis for fiction (yes, that’s me) look at one aspect or kernel of a story and expand your fiction around that, don’t try to tell the whole story (excellent advice from Nicole Alexander which spoke straight to me as I’m currently wrestling with these sorts of issues) https://hnsa.org.au/nicole-alexander/
10. Madison Shakespeare, a Gadigal woman living in Adelaide, spoke on the panel on Dispossession and Betrayal: Recovering the erased history of First Nations. She reminded us that we were on Dharug land – pertinent land for its history of dispossession and violence.
It’s difficult going back, looking back…Ancestors we thank you, for your tenacity, dignity and diplomacy.Madison Shakespeare https://hnsa.org.au/madison-shakespeare/
On the question of writers worrying that, if when writing about indigenous people or indigenous histories, they might ‘get it wrong’, Madison posed the question: How much more damage if you don’t do it at all?
11. The reason I love dual narrative or timeline books is this, as put by Carla Caruso:
There’s a point in your life when you realise realise that your parents, grandparents etc have experienced loss and heartache. That fashions and technologies change but we humans go on and we all want the same things: security, love, passion.Carla Caruso https://hnsa.org.au/carla-caruso/
12: Expert use of point of view allows the writer to take the reader by the hand and lead them through the story. It’s the first splash of colour on the page. Greg Johnson at the ‘I am a Camera: Exploring point of view’ panel session.
13. Juliet Marieller and Elizabeth Jane Corbett write strong female protagonists set during times in which women did not always have great agency or independence, by focusing on how they confront their challenges, find inner strength, have the courage to face truths and move forward.
14. Watching demonstrations of historical fencing over lunch is surprisingly engrossing.
15: Meg Keneally, when talking about the partnership between novelist and historian, described herself as historian Gay Hendriksen‘s
This in reply to Gay being asked by an audience member if she sometimes comes across a story from the historical record or archives and thinks I wish I could find a novelist to write that.
16: The second conference day (27th October) was the anniversary of the first ever female industrial action since colonisation: otherwise known as the 1827 ‘Parramatta Female Factory Riot‘.
17: Kate Forsyth has had enormous respect for the power of words since she delivered a magic curse to a bully in primary school and it worked.
Magic is for the powerless, when you want something so much you exert your full intention upon the universe until it comes true.
Kate told this story in the conference’s final session, Love Potions and Witchcraft.
18: As I suspected, the historical fiction writing community is friendly, energetic, encouraging and inclusive. And the HNSA puts on a jam-packed and satisfying conference. Thanks to all involved:
I had a ball.
Esther, ‘the extraordinary true story of the First Fleet girl who became the First Lady of the colony,’ is about one of those largely unknown figures from Australia’s past. When told well, stories such as this can bring our history to life.
This meticulously researched account, written in narrative non-fiction style, recreates the conditions of London in the late eighteenth century, the journey of the First Fleet ship Lady Penrhyn, the stark reality of the first years of the fledgling English colony perched on the edge of the world – all from the perspective of a young Jewish woman, Esther Abrahams (also known as Esther Julian). She was just sixteen and pregnant when convicted of the theft of some lace and sentenced to transportation to NSW. On arrival she became servant to First Lieutenant George Johnston of the British Marines. Together they spent a short period on Norfolk Island before returning to Sydney. She bore him children and along with her own young daughter Rosanna, they made a life together in Sydney.
Interwoven with her story are characters from the fledgling British colony (Watkin Tench, Major Ross, Captain Arthur Phillip, D’arcy Wentworth, the Macarthurs, and Lachlan Macquarie among others) and Indigenous people such as Bennelong and his wife Barangaroo, Arabanoo and Colbee.
Esther was witness to the dramatic events that played out in the early colony. The near starvation of the first years, the brutality of English punishments, the deaths of so many of the Dharug around Sydney Cove due to disease (very likely smallpox), the incredible escape of Mary Bryant with her husband, small children and a boatload of other convicts, the Rum Rebellion that removed the unlikable Governor Bligh from office. These were formative events that shaped the future nation of Australia. For me, seeing them through Esther’s eyes brought them to vivid life.
But it is Esther’s story that is most remarkable. During the course of her life she moved from the shame and powerlessness of life as a convict, to become the wife of the most powerful man in the colony, after George Johnston led the Rum Rebellion and became for a brief time, Lieutenant-Governor of NSW. In doing so she had to navigate the many perils of convict life, maintaining her dignity in the face of a system that seemed determined to strip it away and later, enduring the entrenched elitist attitudes of those who saw convict beginnings as a stain on the colony. Esther proved her worth by raising her family, managing Johnson’s large agricultural estate at Annandale in Sydney’s west, and earning respect from some of the most influential people in the colony.
I very much enjoyed learning about Esther. Jessica North tells the stories of the early years of Australia in a vivid new way. It’s an absorbing and accessible history read.
Review of ‘Paris Savages’ by Katherine Johnson.
Published by Ventura Press 2019.
I alternated between feelings of horror, anger, shame, and sorrow, reading this new work of fiction. Through a reimagining of the fate of three Badtjala people from K’gari (Queensland’s Fraser Island) who travel to Europe in the 1880’s, the author explores the phenomenon of ‘ethnic shows’ (also known as ‘human zoos’.) In doing so, she uncovers dark stories and tragedies and prompt the question: Who were the savages?
The late nineteenth century was a period of immense excitement in the scientific world. Darwin’s theories of evolution were still being hotly debated. Naturalists, botanists, anthropologists and physicians were clamouring for opportunities to explore and examine evidence to prove various theories about race and human development. The general public was agog at stories about the people and lifestyles of those in Europe’s far-flung colonies. This curiosity and excitement, combined with an opportunity to make money, resulted in the mounting of travelling shows in which people from various ethnic groups and cultures were ‘displayed’, often alongside exotic animals and birds, exactly as we would today imagine a zoo. The human ‘exhibits’ were usually required to perform – everyday tasks such as cooking and eating food, building a shelter, or dancing and singing.
It is in this context that we meet the main characters of Paris Savages. The three Badtjala people (Bonangera/Bonny, Jurano and his niece Dorondera, are taken to Europe by German engineer Louis Muller and his daughter Hilda. The Mullers have spent six years on the island with the Badtjala, learning their customs and language. Hilda’s mother Christel has died, although she appears throughout the novel as a ghost-like presence, an omniscient narrator, a device which allows the reader to see and understand events from the Badtjala people’s perspective.
At first the little group are pleased and excited to be going, and Bonny and Hilda believe it will be an opportunity to educate Europeans about the Badtjala people and the need for better treatment of the First Australians – Bonny especially, wants to meet the Queen of England to plead his people’s case, and Hilda wants to fulfil her mother’s desire to see K’gari become a reserve to allow the Badtjala to live in peace. Hilda writes in her journal:
…why we are in Europe, not just for people to discover the humanity in our friends through their beautiful music and dance but to search for the truth and humanity in themselves.Paris Savages p.238
Hilda and her friends are to be sadly disillusioned. There are glimpses of past atrocities against the Badtjala, mirrored in the unkind or cruel treatments that begin from the moment the trio board the ship chartered to take them to Germany where their tour will begin.
Their situation hardly improves once they arrive. They are shown very poor hospitality by their hosts, housed very like the animals they are displayed beside, stared at, touched and sometimes insulted by the crowds who press in around them during the ‘shows’. Even worse, they are subjected to demeaning and intrusive measurement of their persons, in the name of science and so that ‘certificates of authenticity’ can be issued. The direct links between these behaviours by members of Europe’s scientific community and racist terms such as ‘full-blood’ and ‘half-cast’, as well as theories of Social Darwinism and the idea of Indigenous Australians being a ‘dying race’, are clear to see. It was during these parts of the novel that I felt my shame and anger rise.
Hilda, too, feels shame at the behaviour of her fellow Europeans. Her view of her father Louis begins to change, as she observes his complicity in the abuses meted out to her friends. She wonders, “Perhaps I do not know my father at all.” (p. 297) And her mother’s ghost voice adds:
I would like to tell you what I feel about Louis, this man I once knew, but I will not be distracted from my task of relaying this version of Bonny’s story, which I fear otherwise will not be told….
…I whisper the tale directly into the air so that it might reach the ears of those who are listening, now and into the future. Shhh, listen, I say.Paris Savages, pp. 250 & 285
This is a powerful and beautiful book. The language is lyrical while it also conveys unpleasant truths. There is a lengthy author’s note in which she outlines her considerable research and historical sources. The re-telling of this period of disgraceful behaviour by some Europeans can only evoke a strong emotional response and, I hope, a vow to do better into the future.
Thank you to Sophie Hodge at Ventura Press for a review copy of the book.
‘Australia rides on the sheep’s back.” So I was taught in primary school social studies classes in 1960’s Australia. Wheat was also at the heart of our national agricultural economy, until a decade or so later when mining took number one place in the commodity pecking order.
Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Dark Emu’ suggests that it is time we dismounted from that metaphorical sheep and stepped aside from the wheatfields, at least in part, and consider transitioning to an agriculture that is more sustainable and in harmony with this continent’s often harsh environment. With crops and livestock that the original occupants and custodians of this land were long familiar with.
I’m a relative latecomer to this book, and I’m aware that since it’s publication there have been some criticisms of the author’s research and arguments. None of those criticisms detract from the overall power of the book’s message, which is that our nation has not had an honest account of our history – both pre and post invasion/colonisation. Not only that, but the history that has been disseminated about Aboriginal people’s lifestyles and cultures has often been inaccurate. Pascoe argues that there is compelling evidence that contrary to the ‘hunter/gatherer/nomad’ stereotype, pre-invasion Aboriginal nations practiced forms of agriculture, aquaculture, harvesting and storage of various grains and seeds, and built dwellings. Not to mention the complex systems of law, justice and spirituality.
While the latter has been recognised to some extent in recent decades, Pascoe argues that Aboriginal people engaged in practices that the European colonisers, settlers and explorers should have recognised, but usually didn’t. Instead, permanent dwelling structures were dismissed as ‘humpies’, careful management and harvesting of resources described as ‘hunter-gathering’ activities. He asserts that:
‘Settlers and explorers were united in their assumption of superiority and entitlement… ‘
‘Colonial Australia sought to forget the advanced nature of Aboriginal society and economy, and this amnesia was entrenched when settlers who arrived after the depopulation of whole districts found no structure more substantial than a windbreak, and no population that was not humiliated, debased, and diseased.’Dark Emu p. 11 & 114
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that Pascoe draws heavily (some have argued, selectively) from the writings of early European settlers and explorers. Accounts from well known figures such as Sturt, Mitchell, Burke and Wills, describe the lifestyles and practices of indigenous people they encountered in ways that contradict the ‘hunter-gatherer’ images of First Australians.
Something else I enjoyed was his descriptions of the yam daisy, or murnong, (Microseris lanceolata) a staple of the First People’s diet, which grew in abundance along river banks and was carefully managed and harvested for thousands of years, but which quickly became extinct in areas settled by Europeans. I recalled Kate Grenville writing about this plant and its importance to indigenous diets in The Secret River and In Search of the Secret River. Until then, I had no knowledge of this plant, and the important role it played in pre-invasion Australian life. So it was with pleased recognition that I read Pascoe’s account of it in Dark Emu.
For me, the power of this book lies in the argument that our nation must move past the collective amnesia and blindness of the true history of our continent and its inhabitants. As Pascoe concludes:
‘To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral well-being and economic prosperity.’Dark Emu, p 229
I’ve heard a lot about the importance of having an occasional – or even regular – ‘creative date’. An immersion into a realm of creativity that you don’t usually encounter in your day-to-day life or even in your own creative pursuits. An experience to get the creative wheels turning, perhaps in new directions or with renewed enthusiasm. After a recent foray into the world of theatre, I am totally convinced by this argument.
I went with six of my female ‘besties’ to Parramatta Riverside Theatre, to see a new Australian play, Forgotten, written by Cate Whittaker and produced by Captivate, the creative and performing arts program for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta.
Forgotten is inspired by the stories of convict women who were sent to the Female Factory, from where they could be assigned as convict labourers, or perhaps be married, or – as happened to many – be punished further. The story centres on the 1827 ‘Riot’ when the women went on strike to demand proper rations, because their allotted rations had for some time been siphoned off by the son of the Factory Matron at the time. Half starved, desperate and forgotten by colonial society, they staged a riot, staring down the constables and the militia sent to quell their rebellion, and breaking out of the Factory walls to run through the township of Parramatta in search of food.
While a contemporary press report about the ‘riot’ described the convict women as ‘Amazonian bandetti’, I don’t imagine the women were especially physically strong given their circumstances, however their determination and resilience must have been great to allow them to take this action, which could accurately be described as the first industrial action by women in the country since colonisation.
Mark Hopkins, the Head of Captivate, describes them like this:
…young, predominantly Catholic women who found their voice in collective action in the face of opposition and systemic oppression…Mark Hopkins, in Forgotten program booklet
There were several other ‘riots’ at the Female Factory, usually in response to reduced rations or an increase in punishments such as the hated head shaving. Perhaps later women incarcerated there drew strength from the stories they must have heard about this first action taken by brave and desperate women.
The majority of cast members were students from Catholic high schools in the Parramatta area, with some roles performed by Captivate alumni, with one or two teachers in the mix as well. Their performances were wonderful: portraying the circumstances of young women around the same age as themselves, but in a very different time and place.The production was supported by The Parramatta Female Factory Friends (the playwright is a member of this group as well as a Colonial historian and teacher). The production was simple but evocative of the harsh and uncompromising setting of the Factory.
So, how did this experience work for me as a ‘creative date’? During the play, I laughed a few times, I seethed at the unfair and unjust treatment meted out to these women, and I cried some tears. I was glad to see their stories presented on the stage – and in this way kept alive, not forgotten after all. The story resonated particularly because this era, and the Female Factory itself, feature in my work in progress – historical fiction set in convict-era NSW. Seeing these portrayed through words and action on a stage sparked some new ideas and thoughts about my own work.
And, last but certainly not least, it made me recommit to the promise to my characters to tell their stories – so that they, too, are not forgotten.
If you’d like to know more about the Female Factory and the work of the Friends to preserve this heritage, see their website http://www.parramattafemalefactoryfriends.com.au/
Melissa Lucashenko has just been awarded the 2019’s Miles Franklin Award, one of Australia’s premier literary prizes, for Too Much Lip. It’s the first novel from this author that I’ve read and I’ll be looking to read more of her books, such is the quality of this one.
The story revolves around the Salters, a Bundjalung family from a fictional small town in northern NSW. I know this region as a holiday destination, with rolling green hills inland and beautiful beaches along the coast. So it was sobering to read about the other side – the darker side – of places like this.
Kerry Salter had escaped the hopelessness and despair of the area to live in Queensland. She’s back – briefly she hopes – to say goodbye to her proud grandfather, a respected elder of the family and community, whose own life has its darker corners. Pop dies and Kerry longs to get the hell out of there again, but family business and conflicts get in the way. Secrets are revealed, the long threads of inter-generational trauma untangled, and wounds are healed, made afresh and healed again, before the story concludes.
There is a plot by a local corrupt real estate agent and town mayor to sell off a piece of ancestral land to be thwarted, arrest warrants to be dodged, and a long lost sister to meet again. Not to mention sorting out her feelings for Steve – a school friend from long ago who is now the local gym manager and boxing trainer – and who is not only male, but white into the bargain. As someone who considers herself a lesbian and who has vowed to never get involved with a white fella, this all serves to confuse and unsettle Kerry.
The characters are all complex, not always especially likeable, but compelling. I cared a great deal about this family. And Lucashenko’s skillful revealing of their past and present traumas, their lives lived as outsiders even on the land of their ancestors, helped me to understand more of the experiences of Australia’s First Peoples. I enjoyed the way the author wove in words from the Bundjalung language through the dialogue. This is especially timely as 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
(As an aside, anyone living on Dharug land or interested in learning more about Dharug culture and language might want to check out the online language lessons given by Dharug woman Jacinta Tobin through ABC Education)
To finish, here is a beautiful quote from the novel that spoke loudly to me, involved as I’ve been in researching family history and stories:
And that’s what graves are for, the realisation dawned on Kerry. They distilled your family history. They took what your ancestors did and who they were and gave it to you in one place, so you could go there and think about your lives and learn the lessons you needed to learn in order to keep on going.Too Much Lip, by Melissa Lucashenko, page 134
If you have read some of my previous posts, you’ll know that I’m a fan of historical fiction, especially fiction based on or inspired by real historical people and events. Mary-Anne O’Connor’s latest book, In a Great Southern Land, fits this bill nicely.
Set during the Goldrush times in Victoria and NSW (the mid nineteenth century) it follows the stories of two Irish newcomers to the colony: Eve (who arrives on a convict ship) and Keiran (who with his brother, sister and brother-in-law, arrive as free settlers.)
The book is a romance and we see the blossoming of love between the two main protagonists, with inevitable barriers placed in the way of them achieving their heart’s desires. Of course there is a happy conclusion. Because it is historical fiction, the plot complications arise from the times in which the story unfolds: the social, political and economic factors at play at this period of Australia’s history, including the poverty and hardship experienced by poor Irish farmers which drove many thousands to seek a better life elsewhere, the need for workers in the colonies due to the winding down of convict transportation to Australia, and especially, the feverish flocking to the goldfields of NSW and Victoria in search of the sought after ore.
I loved the fact that the characters and story were inspired by the author’s own Irish ancestors. It’s so important these stories of our forebears are told, not only to keep the stories themselves alive, but also to signal our beginnings as a modern nation. In these arguably much easier times, it is hard to imagine life before electricity, clean running water, accessible medicine, education, motorised transport, electronic communication devices and nearby grocery stories. The women and men who lived in the 1850’s had none of these things, yet still managed to love, laugh, establish families, argue, hold grudges, have fun, make music, learn, travel and earn a living. Just as we do today.
A big part of the plot of In a Great Southern Land centres on the story of the Eureka rebellion, when miners banded together against the injustices of the colonial authorities, ultimately facing off at the doomed Eureka Stockade. This battle is up there with Ned Kelly and Gallipoli in terms of iconic Australian history, but I sometimes wonder how many Australians know much about it or about the injustices that sparked the rebellion. Mary-Anne O’Connor has deftly woven these events in and around the stories of her characters and it makes an effective climax for her novel. There are some coincidences that perhaps stretch credibility a little, but all in all this is a satisfying novel, firmly placed in a very Australian context, with deep Irish roots.
This well researched historical fiction for young adults tells the story of Nanberry, a young Cadigal boy who was ‘adopted’ by John White, the Surgeon at the early colony of Sydney. Nanberry’s story is a remarkable one, as so many of the stories to be found in Australia’s history are. Orphaned when his parents and most of his clan died from the smallpox that devastated so much of the First Peoples communities of the Sydney region, Nanberry lived in Surgeon White’s house and learned to speak English, use English clothes and manners, yet maintained strong links with the remaining survivors of the Eora nation. As Jackie French tells it, in adulthood he gravitated between life as a sailor, travelling the seas on board English ships, and returning at times to the Cadigal people.
The novel is told from multiple viewpoints, which I appreciated because it’s an effective way to weave in some of those other stories that we don’t always hear about. The stories of Maria, for example, an ‘ordinary’ convict girl assigned to Surgeon White as servant, and that of Rachel Turner, another convict servant and a real figure from history, who after serving her sentence, became one of the wealthiest and most admired women in the early colony. Rachel’s son by the Surgeon, Andrew, also features—another remarkable life. The ‘white’ brother in the title, Andrew was left as an infant with his mother when White was recalled to England (though White made sure he and Rachel were well provided for.) Andrew later returned to England to attend school and went on to become one of the ‘heroes of Waterloo’, the crucial battle by the English against Napoleon’s army.
We also see the colony, with all it’s vice, filth, disease and despair, through the eyes of the Surgeon whose unenviable job it was to treat injury and illness with few medicines and fewer facilities. I marvel when I read accounts of life in these early days of Sydney. That anyone survived, let alone a settlement that developed into a global city, is something of a miracle.
Of particular note, of course, are the parts told from the viewpoint of Nanberry. Governor Phillip used the boy to interpret for him with Eora people he came across, because of the youngster’s facility with English. Through Nanberry we meet other Eora figures including Coleby, Bennelong and Balloonderry. Writing from an indigenous viewpoint when you are not yourself indigenous is a contested thing nowadays. However, I do think that this book manages to convey multiple viewpoints with skill and sensitivity.
Nanberry: Black Brother White is a terrific way for young people to see Australia’s history through story—the vibrant, tragic, astounding stories that make up the whole of this nation’s history since European colonisation.