Imprint: Walker Books Australia
Australian RRP: $18.99
New Zealand RRP: $21.99
It is certainly no secret that I love historical fiction, and colonial Australian history is a particular favourite of mine. I loved this exciting new narrative from Claire Saxby – whose prowess with picture books is already so well established. Set just two years before my first ancestors arrived in this country, this recounts the importation of young Irish girls to become, essentially, servants and/or wives in a colony that was heavily male dominated. With Ireland in tatters after the Great Famine (also known as the Great Hunger, the Famine or the Potato Famine) and 1 million dead as a result, many young girls ( among others) faced uncertainty without family or home to shelter them. These girls were outfitted with a basic wardrobe and shipped to Australia, among them young Biddy Blackwell whose older brother has been out in the colony for some years.
When Biddy arrives and her brother Ewen is nowhere to be found, she is sent to work on a remote farm with a cruel master, an indifferent and downtrodden wife and finds she is little more than an unpaid slave. Surviving first the conditions in which she finds herself, but then even worse after her master’s first wife dies and he brings home a new one, equally as nasty as himself, Biddy manages a daring escape following the mayhem of a flood, and finds herself back in the city under the protection of the hostel. While she discovers some clues as to Ewen’s possible location, she needs to restrain herself and finds herself working for an eccentric but kind journalist as his ‘eyes and ears’ in the courtrooms of Melbourne.
The prejudices and persecution with which the Irish immigrants are faced is rising fast and when Biddy attends the court sessions and sees one well-known dissenter, Brendan Black, she is elated to find she has finally discovered her missing brother. Naturally, his situation presents some problems but with the help of new friends and supporters, the way is made smoother and Biddy can finally hope for a new start, complete with family.
Claire Saxby’s inspiration for this novel was her own family history and this little known episode in Australia’s history is important to understand as its impact on the rise of concepts such as fair pay and work conditions cannot be under-estimated.
Highly recommended for readers from upper primary to mid-secondary and for students of Australian history, this is certainly a prime candidate for ‘read around your topic’.