Again Jackie has crafted a narrative that combines fact and fiction to take readers back in time to colonial Australia where it was commonplace to meet diverse characters and perhaps even more commonplace not to know everything there is to know about those people. Though set in the 19th century much of the plot will resonate in today’s contemporary classroom as comparisons can be made around immigration, prejudice and race in particular.
Young Jem has been raised ably by his coach-driver father following the sad death of his mother, and has acquired many of the skills necessary to be a competent whip for Cobb & Co, but managing five horses, without help, on roads that are far from level or safe is not for the faint-hearted. The night run from to Goulburn to meet the Sydney train is always a race against time but when bad weather hits – and when your coach-driver is badly injured – it’s an almost impossible ask. Eleven year old Jem must gather up all his strength and courage to complete the journey as the six mysterious passengers each have their own special imperative for reaching the destination on time.
It’s a wild ride through the dark and dangerous country side between Braidwood and Goulburn and the suspenseful story will hold any reader fascinated until the very end. Jackie chooses to authenticate the narrative by using vernacular of the time and while this may challenge some readers, it is well-explained and completes the essential sense of being immersed in the moment.
Both boys and girls from around ten years upwards will relish this adventure from Australia’s past which, as with many of Jackie’s historical novels, is based on actual events. As someone who has read histories of colonial Australia, both factual and fictionalised since I was that same age, I can thoroughly endorse it and I recommend it enthusiastically for your middle primary to lower secondary readers.
I also particularly loved it as we have a strong Braidwood connection – and it was great fun to read of an incident from it’s past.
Just a few weeks ago I reviewed the third in Jackie’s Miss Lily series and now it’s another superb historical fiction, plus I have two others on my review shelf. I begin to wonder when the woman sleeps! Her prodigious output, the diversity of her works and the unsurpassed quality of her narratives are just truly awe-inspiring.
I know a modicum of Australian history but Jackie always provides so much deeper knowledge and indeed, revelations about our past which I for one have entirely missed.
In this case it is the piracy that was not uncommon in our waters during the 19th century.
Young Ebenezer (Ben) Huntsmore has had an idyllic life, growing up in his mother’s ancestral home, Badger’s Hill, and has loved his interaction with the farming tenants and the contented continuity of their community. When his mostly absent and ne’er-do-well shipowner father loses everything in a gambling debt their life is turned upside down and Ben and his mother are forced to leave their much-loved home to journey to the far off new colony of Australia. Huntsmore Senior has a plan to restore the family fortune with his one remaining ship as a privateer, with the good grace and commission from the Prince of Wales. Who knew? Certainly not me!
The sea voyage is marred by the ill-treated human cargo of convicts – mere chattels to the owner – and the death of Ben’s mother from typhoid. Ben barely survives the deadly illness himself. The ensuing chapter of the narrative finds little improved for young Ben when the piracy begins in earnest with scant regard for human life or any kind of mercy. With poetic justice the first act of robbery on the high seas a success has a bad ending for Ben’s father and Ben himself is castaway but with his only two ‘friends’ – the Aboriginal sailor Guwara and the convict Higgins – who form an alliance and commit to returning Ben to safety.
Complex and confronting at times but with redeeming hopefulness, courage, unexpected friendship and loyalty and the perfect illustration that ‘class’ does not maketh the individual, this is a wonderful study of human nature at its best as well as its worst. The references to Jackie’s previous books with the appearance of an adult Tom Appleby (Tom Appleby, ConvictBoy) and the mention of Nanberry (Nanberry Black Brother White) are cleverly inserted. As always Jackie’s indefatigable research enables her to embed historical fact into her narrative seamlessly, allowing the reader to truly ‘live’ in the experience.
Readers who are keen on Australian history or those who are studying this period of history will find this intriguing and intense. Again, Jackie has given us an absolutely cracking read!
Highly recommended for mature readers from around mid-primary upwards.