Books and reading,  History

Accessible and engrossing historical story-telling: ‘The Schoolmaster’s Daughter’ by Jackie French

What a national treasure Jackie French is! One of our most popular children’s authors (think Diary of a Wombat for picture books, A Waltz for Matilda, Pennies for Hitler, or Nanberry: Black Brother White for older children, she writes everything from historical fiction for adults, to fantasy, sci-fi and non-fiction. Jackie was the Australian Children’s Laureate in 2014-15 and is a member of the Order of Australia for her contribution to literature and especially youth literacy.

The Schoolmaster’s Daughter is historical fiction for middle school (and older) readers. My love affair with historical fiction began around the age at which The Schoolmaster’s Daughter is aimed – ten and up – and I absorbed much of what I knew about the past at that age from my reading of fiction set in historical times. It’s one of the things that I love most about the genre – a young reader can learn so much from well researched books without it feeling like ‘learning history.’

This new book by Jackie French is an excellent example. Set in 1901, as Australia enters a new century with a brand-new national Parliament and (as Hannah’s mother hopes) ‘laws made by every man and woman in Australia’ (p92) Hannah begins her new life in northern NSW, with her little brother, mother and father. Her father is about to start work as schoolmaster at the small school in Port Harris, named for the wealthy cane grower and landowner of the district. Hannah is full of excitement and plans about what she will learn at the school, her dreams of writing poetry and later, studying at university.

Their arrival is marred by their ship becoming stranded and then wrecked in a storm just off the beach, and this sets the scene for what Hannah learns over the next few months. Things are not always as they seem on the surface, adults do not always say and do the right things, and cruelty and injustices exist everywhere. The book introduces the younger reader to important developments in Australia becoming a modern nation: Federation, women’s suffrage, and the right of all Australian children to schooling – but also to darker events such as racism, slavery, education denied to children because of their gender or skin colour.

The author’s meticulous attention to historical accuracy shows in the tiny details of everyday life in this time and place: dress, food and cooking, transport, children’s games and books, schooling and education practices, popular songs, toys, books and poems. Younger readers might well be shocked to learn of the dark practice of ‘black birding’, where men from Pacific islands were brought (either against their will or through false pretenses) to work as virtual slaves on the sugar cane farms of northeastern Australia. And Australian children today might be surprised to read about the way girls were expected to behave during this period:

A good girl put her family first. A good girl looked after younger children. A good girl would give Papa a cup of tea and a slice of Mrs Murphy’s horse-droppings fruit cake when he came back from school this afternoon, and apologise for her disobedience and promise she would never do it again.
A good girl would never keep secrets from her father, like ordering books he didn’t know about, or studying with a young man with darker skin.

The Schoolmaster’s Daughter p132

Hannah is a sympathetic character and we feel for her as she puzzles out the hard truths she is confronted with. It’s also interesting to compare and contrast the challenges facing young people in the past with those experienced by their modern counterparts. Another opportunity for learning through historical fiction. I particularly liked that the author drew on her own family history as inspiration for this novel – proof of my belief that every family has stories and characters worth knowing.

I loved this book and will tuck away my copy for when my grandkids (a boy and a girl) are old enough to read it.

The Schoolmaster’s Daughter was published by Harper Collins in May 2020.
Thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

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