It is 1835 and Dorothea Newell is shipwrecked on an island off the coast of Western Australia. A single white woman in the company of sealers, desperadoes and outsiders, she must do what she can to survive until the chief sealer agrees to take her to the mainland.
To protect her younger sister, whose husband has tried to trade her to Anderson the sealer, Dorothea becomes Anderson’s woman. Even this does not guarantee her safety, or her aim of returning to civilisation.
Skins, winner of the 2001 Australian/Vogel Literary award is a fictionalised account of the story of Dorothea Newell (later known as Dolly Pettit). Based on real people and events, the story explores an intriguing part of Western Australia’s history. Few readers would have previous knowledge of the life of the sealers and whalers in the early years of the colony.
Skins is set in harsh conditions and involves hardened characters, so large parts of the novel seem very dark. For much of the tale there seems little hope of much good happening in the lives of these characters. With perseverance on the part of the reader there is some light, although this is certainly not meant to be a feel-good novel. What it does provide is an insight both into characters coping with dire situations and into a genuine part of Australia’s past.
Skins, by Sarah Hay
Allen and Unwin, 2002