Is Jackie French among Australia’s most productive – perhaps I should say prolific – author? From her busy mind and creative genius pour picture books, fiction and non fiction for older children and adults, and book series to please all ages and tastes. The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle is book two in the Butter O’Bryan Mystery series for middle-grade readers.
Set in the 1930’s during the Depression, the series follows the adventures of Butter who lives with his friends Gil, Olive and Tish, their dog Woofer, and three Aunts with unusual nicknames – Elephant, Cake and Peculiar. The Very Small Castle is just what it’s name suggests – a mini castle built on the shore of Howler’s Beach, and it is complete with battlements and a dungeon as all good castles should be.
A ‘talking movie’ is being filmed on the beach and the children are asked to join the action, when the beautiful star Delilah Divine vanishes without leaving a trace. Has she been been kidnapped? Lost to the sea? Butter is determined to solve the mystery.
Ms French incorporates a great many historical references in these books, from the ‘Susso camp’ nearby (a shanty town of the kind found outside many Australian towns during the Depression) to Australia’s early film industry. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is about to be opened, characters speak using early 20th century Australianisms, and food on the menu ranges from the then very new fad of pavlova, to ‘bread and dripping’.
There’s a wonderful section in the back of the book which explains many of these aspects of Australian history, and includes recipes for traditional treats like Victoria Sponge, Bubble and Squeak and Boiled Fruit Cake. There’s also instructions on how to play games like Knucklebones or Blue Murder (which I knew as ‘Murder in the Dark’ when I was a kid.)
All of the history is embedded naturally in a rollicking tale of a disappearing actress, a circus performer and a monster, and a crime to be solved.
Most of all, the story is about friendship, sharing, and embracing difference:
His family. Not a normal family, maybe. But normal was much less fun…Butter grinned. There were many ways to make a family.The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle p233
The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle and the Butter O’Bryan series will be enjoyed by middle-grade readers who like mystery and history together in a story.
The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in April 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Firstly: don’t let the luscious cover of Jackie French’s latest historical fiction fool you. It may look like a classic historical romance, but there is enough danger, intrigue, secrets and twisty bits to satisfy any lover of thriller novels. No car chase scenes, but I say thank goodness for that!
Secondly, a disclaimer: Legends of the Lost Lilies is book number five (and the final) in the Miss Lily series, which collectively cover the immediate pre-WWI period to the immediate post-WWII period (and a later epilogue). I had previously read only the first, Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies, and there is a lot that happens in the intervening three episodes – so I was left a little bewildered by some of the story in this latest book. Ms French skilfully weaves in essential bits of backstory and introduces characters well (of course she does, she is an expert storyteller), but I do think it best to come to this one having read at least one or two of the previous titles. I intend to go back and fill in some gaps when I can.
The characters from the first Miss Lily appear in this one, too, though of course much has happened to them all over two world wars and everything in between. I don’t want to say much about the plot of book five, because it would be too easy to give spoilers. One thing I will say about the plot is that, in her Author’s Note, Ms French assures us that every character and incident in the book is based on people and events that really existed, individually or as composites. That was good to read because there are some ‘larger than life’ characters and some moments when I wondered at a plot turn. Shades of Margaret Atwood, who based every event in her groundbreaking novel The Handmaid’s Tale’ on things that had really happened somewhere in the world.
I’d like to comment on the themes of the five Miss Lily books. In her Author’s Note, Jackie French says:
The series shows how women’s views of themselves changed and widened over the twentieth century. It is also about the women men did not see, or rather, did see, but then for a multitude of reasons omitted from history.Legends of the Lost Lilies p.431
The novel also explores the complexities of life, of relationships, the tragedy and pointlessness of war. A strong underlying theme is the nature of love (in all its forms) and loyalty, kindness and forgiveness as tools for peace, and loss as the inevitable other side of love.
A lovely quote towards the end of the book combines many of these themes. Observing the young women of her family in the 1970’s, Sophia reflects on how the women of her generation and earlier generations prepared their path:
They think they invented it all, and that is how it should be, for pride in what they have achieved will take them further.Legends of the Lost Lilies p.428
Yet their grandmothers and great-grandmothers and every generation of women before them were there at every major moment in history, though the books rarely record us.
In amongst the drama, the intelligence activities, the horror of wartime, the losses, pain and grief, this is the shining thread that runs through the Miss Lily narrative: women and their networks, friendships, strengths. The series will be enjoyed by historical fiction fans who love reading about the heroic women of our collective past.
Legends of the Lost Lilies will be published by HarperCollins Australia in April 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.
The first thing I noticed about The Angel of Waterloo is the cover image – one of the most haunting book covers I’ve seen for a while, designed by Mark Campbell using artwork by Mary Jane Ansell. You can see more of her beautiful work here.
The novel opens on the carnage and chaos of the battlefield at Waterloo, arguably the most famous of all the battles of the Napoleonic Wars. The protagonist, Henrietta (or ‘Hen’) is just fifteen and, along with her army surgeon father, desperately trying to save as many injured soldiers as she can.
Already more accomplished in medical matters than many physicians (who in this era were all male), Hen manages to save the arm and the life of a young lieutenant, Max Bartlett. When he regains consciousness he makes a rash proposal of marriage to his saviour and Hen accepts. They are married by a local priest, right there on the battlefield, witnessed only by Hen’s father and Max’s friend.
I’m still uncertain if this battlefield marriage worked for me, though I do understand that in war, normal behavioural norms and expectations are often jettisoned. The device also works to move the plot to Australia, when Hen embarks on a hopeful voyage several years later. In the colony, she finds that the stakes for her happiness, safety and fulfilment are even higher than before.
I’d describe this novel as a saga: so much happens and it’s an emotional roller coaster as we follow the fluctuating fortunes of the various characters.
As always, Jackie French’s historical detail is impeccable and layered through the narrative seamlessly, so readers can learn a great deal while being immersed in the story. We become aware, for example, of how the colony’s politics and economics affected all who lived there: the indigenous people who were quickly dispossessed of their lands, the poor, the convicts and the free settlers who followed in their wake. The violence and injustice imported along with the settlers are clear to see.
As Sergeant Drivers says to Hen:
‘Miss Hen, ain’t you realised yet that this is a land of felons? We walk around with no chains because the wild about us is prison-walls enough, but none of us is innocent, no matter what we claim. Nor was we caught the first time we broke the law, neither. Most of us are damned good at it.’The Angel of Waterloo p 212
So, the realities of colonial life are laid bare as Hen immerses herself in this new world and faces difficult decisions about her future there.
At the novel’s heart is the theme of warfare, violence and colonisation:
‘You were simply swallowed up by Waterloo.’The Angel of Waterloo p327
She saw by his expression Max did not understand. ‘I mean the whole mindset that led to it, those long years of war with France. The colony is built on a world that sees nothing odd in killing thirty thousand soldiers in a day, leaving ten thousand orphan children starving and countless eyeless beggars craving for a crust. It’s the right of any gentleman to take whatever he can win.’
This novel also made me think about how authors of today portray historical events and people in fiction. There is a tension between wanting to give as accurate a picture as possible, while also allowing at least some characters to express views on matters such as race-relations, for example, that would be more in line with modern-day values.
I wonder how many non-indigenous people in nineteenth century NSW would have been sympathetic to the First Australians and why their views and experiences were not recorded prominently in their own time. The work of historians such as Paul Irish and Grace Karskens does help to show that not all settlers were blind to the humanity of the indigenous people they encountered. But I think that they were likely in a minority. Jackie French shows how racist attitudes had their roots in the long standing divisions and violence of British society.
The Angel of Waterloo has plenty of unexpected moments that kept me eager to read on. I warmed to Hen and truly wished her happiness in her adopted country. Lovers of Jackie French’s historical novels will find this an engrossing read.
The Angel of Waterloo is published by Harper Collins Publishers on 2 December 2020.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
The wonderful Jackie French is back with another picture book, this one illustrated by Danny Snell.
The Fire Wombat takes the trauma and devastation of the 2019/2020 summer bushfires across eastern Australia and crafts a gentle fable about how even the smallest of beings can survive with the support of others.
Jackie lives in the Araluen Valley near Braidwood in southeastern NSW, an area that experienced those appalling fires during that summer. She is passionate and vocal about the wildlife that shares her land, and has published many books about these animals, including her well loved Wombat series.
In The Fire Wombat, the terrifying fires drive many animals from their homes, some to shelter in a wombat burrow deep in the earth. When the fires have passed, they face starvation and thirst. That is, until human intervention delivers life saving food and water to the devastated fire grounds. And gradually, the land begins to heal:
Others flourished, though trees drooped:The Fire Wombat
Goannas feasted, eagles swooped.
Grass trees blossomed, feeding bees.
Native mice carried seeds.
Slowly, the bush regained its songs.
The little wombat at the heart of the story survives.
The author’s note at the end of the book urges people to donate to a wildlife charity if they wish to help after disasters, or get training in how to care for wild animals.
This lovely picture book is perfect in the way it encompasses its environmental theme and deals with a very dark and traumatic experience for so many Australian children, while also offering hope for the future.
The Fire Wombat is published by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books, on 29 October 2020.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
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.