Ratwhiskers and Me, by Lorraine Marwood

Ratwhiskers is sleeping.
I must have dozed.
I am filthy. I am worn out.
I am hungry.
I’m late to bury a body.
I don’t know where I am.
But just above me the sky is dark.
The stars cold glitter.
Night is safe sometimes.
I unroll.
I ache.

The boy doesn’t remember much – just smoke and running to escape. Now he is on the goldfields, working as cook for three miners. But there are many hardships on the goldfields – death, disease, shortages, and the miners expect him to work hard. There is no kindness. When the boy befriends a Chinese boy tending a market garden, it makes life a little easier – until the miners turn on the Chinese, and the boy finds himself caught between the two groups. Then his Chinese friend discovers his secret, a secret which could make life harder for both of them.

Ratwhiskers and Me is a beautifully rendered verse novel, telling the story of conditions on the Bendigo goldfields in the 1850s. Marwood uses a minimum of words for a maximum impact, bringing to life the hardships of the life of the miners, the harsh prejudices faced by the Chinese and the extremes of human behaviour during the goldrush. The use of the verse novel format allows both a vivid first-person narrative and a paring back of all but the most important details, taking the reader on an emotional journey through gripping events.

A masterpiece.

Ratwhiskers and Me, by Lorraine Marwood
Walker, 2008

Seams of Gold, by Christopher Cheng

‘What’s this one? I asked him, lifting the small basket that was decorated with Chinese coins and tassels and beads.
‘Ah that special basket. Bring from China. My mother’s basket. To remind me where I come from, MaMa say. That basket for special sewing. For fine stitching. Someone maybe need torn clothes repaired or fine embroidery that need special threads and needles.”

Danny isn’t impressed when he has to go with his uncle to repair tents and clothes in the goldfields. He wants to tell his uncle that sewing is women’s work, but he knows that he has to respect his uncle and go with him anyway. Out on the goldfields, Danny sees the work his uncle does, and soon learns a new respect.

Seams of Gold shares the experience of a Chinese man and his nephew during the goldrush of the 1850s. Told from the first person point of view of Danny, the story provides a unique perspective on just one of the roles played by the Chinese people who worked on the goldfields, and touches on their treatment at the hands of white miners.

Part of the Making tracks series, Seams of Gold is suitable for readers aged 8 to 12.

Seams of Gold, by Christopher Cheng
National Museum of Australia Press, 2007

Antarctic Close-Up, by Hazel Edwards

Dad warned me, but … I just wanted to look inside the telescope. An idea came to me: the telescope and the webcam both let you see things better. What if I put the old technology and the new technology together?

John likes to fiddle with things, which sometimes lands him in trouble. But when he connects a broken webcam to a telescope which was once used in the Antarctic, he gets a surprise. Through the webcam, history comes alive on his dad’s laptop. Now John and his friend Peter are witnessing the events of an expedition that took place nearly a hundred years ago.

Antarctic Close-Up is part historical novel, part fantasy adventure, with most of the action taking place in the present, where John and Peter have access to the telescope at his father’s auction business. Young readers will enjoy this novel approach to examining history, with John and Peter witnessing the expedition through the webcam and the screen of the laptop.

Part of the Making Tracks series, Antarctic Close-Up offers a unique perspective on Antarctic history to young readers.

Antarctic Close-Up, by Hazel Edwards
National Museum of Australia Press, 2007

A Penny to Remember, by Kirsty Murray

‘I want you to remember the best times we’ve had. You and me together.’
Hannah turned the coin over and gazed at it in wonder. Carefully etched into the metal was a picture of a boy and a girl, two small figures holding hands. They were dressed plainly, the boy in a jacket, the girl in a simple dress. In an arc above their heads were two words. Hannah recognised the letter ‘H’.

When George is sentenced to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land, his greatest heartache is being separated from his sister Hannah. But another convict suggests a token he can leave behind for Hannah to remember him by – a love token made from a penny. Soon, George is on his way to Van Diemen’s Land and Hannah is at home in England wearing the penny on a ribbon around her neck. Is there any hope that they’ll ever be together again?

A Penny to Remember is a short chapter book for primary school aged readers, bringing the convict era alive for young readers. Part of the Making Tracks series from the National Museum of Australia Press, the story focuses on two young protagonists and is told from their alternate viewpoints in third person narrative.

The use of young characters and a real object from the museum’s collection helps to make Australian history accessible to young readers.

A Penny to Remember, by Kirsty Murray
National Museum of Australia Press, 2007

No One Owns Me, by Ron Bunney

Joe has an unorthodox life for a girl – she dresses as a boy and travels with her father, a cameleer who runs a carting business. Joe loves the way things are and wouldn’t change them. But change seems to be forced upon her. A chance meeting with a stranger leads Joe to wonder who she really is. It seems the man she calls ‘Dad’ is not her father her all. Many years ago, he found her, a tiny baby, alone in the outback with her dead parents and took her in.

Now Joe must struggle to come to terms with the tale of her past, as well as coming to grips with the new feelings she struggles with when she meets a young boy her own age. There are also changes coming for the camel team she and her father have worked all her life. Now trucks are able to do the work that the camels once do – and they are able to do it faster.

No One Owns Me explores an era of Western Australian history which will be unfamiliar to many young readers – with events taking place in the Goldfields and interior in a time before motorised transport. At the same time, the story explores issues of cultural difference, family and loyalty, with Joe having to deal with the differences between her blood family and the ‘father’ who has raised her, as well as his reasons for keeping her past from her.

With a dearth of historical fiction set in Western Australia, this one is a welcome find.

No One Owns Me, by Ron Bunney
Fremantle Arts Centre, 2004

The Castaways of the Charles Eaton, by Gary Crew & Mark Wilson

When the ship Isabella sails from Sydney in June 1836, its orders are to search for survivors of the Charles Eaton, a ship which had been missing for two years.

What the crew of the Isabella found was disarming. On Murray Island, known to be inhabited by head hunters, they find just two survivors – a toddler and a young cabin boy – living with the natives. They also find seventeen skulls – the remains of the other victims of the wreck of the Charles Eaton. The islanders have slain these seventeen, but spared the boys because they were believed to be the ghosts of long-lost children now returned to them.

The story of the rescue of the two white boys and subsequent events is told by the fifteen year old clerk of the Isabella, whose job it is to try to keep the two survivors calm and happy on their trip back to Sydney. This chocie of narrator adds depth to the book, with the clerk’s insights and asides proving very telling.

Based on a factual story, author Gary Crew and illustrator Mark wilson weave a story of intrigue.

The Castaways of the Charles Eaton, by Gary Crew and Mark Eaton
Lothian, 2002

The Gentleman's Garden, by Catherine Jinks

In the early 1800s, Dorothea Brande accompanies her new husband on his regimental tour of duty to colonial New South Wales. From the polite circles of her Devonshire home, to the harshness of the colony proves a terrifying adjustment for the couple.

Dorothea struggles both with the physical harshness and the desperation and brutality of most of the colony’s residents. For her husband Charles, the colony is similarly depleting. However, rather than draw them together, this mutual discomfort drives them apart

Dorothea, searching desperately for a comfort zone which will connect her with home, decides to create a cottage garden around their humble home. As she directs her convict servant Daniel in this task the pair build a strange bond. The garden is a haven for them both.

Author Catherine Jinks interweaves historical fact with a compelling story, so that the reader can truly experience Dorothea’s desperation and sense of alienation. The characters of the colony, from all walks of life, are deftly portrayed, and the development of the three principals, Dorothea, her husband Charles, and the servant Daniel is both believable and enduring.

The Gentleman’s Garden is an enticing read for lovers of historical fiction or literary masterpieces.

Catherine Jinks is a versatile writer whose work ranges across genres and age groups from children to adult. She lives in New South Wales. Her children’s novel Eglantine (Allen and Unwin,2002) is also reviewed on this site.

The Gentleman’s Garden, by Catherine Jinks
Allen & Unwin, 2002

Lancashire Legacy, by Anna Jacobs

If you are a fan of the historical saga , then you are surely familiar with the name Anna Jacobs. Jacobs is undoubtedly queen of this genre in Australia, with her stories about her native Lancashire and Australia, her adopted home. Fans of Ms Jacobs will not be disappointed with Lanacshire Legacy, new out in paperback.

The heroine, eighteen year old Cathie, loves her family, but wants desperately to escape the bush home that she shares with them. Life in the bush is hard, and Cathie longs to return to England, to make contact with relatives in Lancashire and to have an adventure.

When Cathie’s Uncle agrees to pay her fare, Cathie travels to England, where she finds that the adventure she has is far removed from the adventures she had hoped for. Attacked on the docks after her arrival, Cathie loses her memory. Rescued by a man with problems of his own, she struggles to remember her past and to find the answers she is seeking about her father and brother. As she does so, she becomes a part of the family of her rescuer, the handsome Magnus Hamilton, towards whom she feels an increasing attraction.

As she learns about her past, Cathie discovers that she is moving in a society where rich established families have the power to destroy her own chances at happiness, and that of those around her, including Magnus, her young brother Francis, and three half-brothers she didn’t know she had.

As we follow the journey of Cathie’s self discovery we also revisit the life of her mother, Liza, who was introduced in Jacobs’ earlier title, Lancashire Lass. Whilst the novel continues the story of Liza and her family, the first title is not prerequisite reading for a full enjoyment of the second. Be warned though, that having read Lanacshire Legacyyou will want to learn more of this family and will, like this reviewer, be looking out for more stories in the future.

Lancashire Legacy, by Anna Jacobs.
Hodder & Stoughton, 2001 (Paperback edition 2002)

My Story – Who Am I?

“Matron Rose said I should write in you every day about all the things I do and stuff. And I do lots of things that I’m gunna tell you about.” So begins the diary of Mary Talence, aged 10, Sydney 1937.

Mary’s story, presented via her diary entries, begins at Bombaderry home for Aboriginal children. Mary has been living here since she was five, but remembers another home- with her Mum and Dad and lots of brothers and sisters. Mary likes her family at Bombaderry, including her best friend Marj, and the babies she looks after, but she still misses her Mum and wonders why she doesn’t come to visit.

Mary’s life changes again soon after the diary begins, when she is fostered by a white family. The diary follows her struggle to assimilate into the white society she finds herself living in. Mary is repeatedly told that to be Aboriginal is bad and that she must forget her past. To Mary this is incomprehensible.

Who Am I ? creates an awareness and understanding in young readers of the policies of protection and assimilation of Aborigines which were practiced in Australia until 1969. By using the intimate first person format of the diary, readers are given a first-hand experience of the emotional effects on the children from the ‘stolen generation’ of being removed from their families and stripped of their identities.

Who Am I? is part of Scholastic’s ongoing My Story series, presenting the stories of young people in different periods of Australian history. A quality read for readers aged 10 and over, and also suitable for study as an in class text.

My Story: Who Am I?, by Anita Heiss
Published by Scholastic Australia, 2001

The Floating Brothel

Many stories of convict life present romanticised tales of poor innocents wrongly accused of trivial crimes and sent on ships with billowing sails to ultimately lead a wonderful new life in the bountiful southern land.

In The Floating Brothel, Sian Rees presents a vividly different view. This is the previously untold story of life aboard the Lady Julian which sailed from England in 1789 bearing a cargo of convicts destined for Botany Bay.

This is an historical account, not a piece of fiction, so do not expect a light romance or tales of happily ever after, though this does not mean that The Floating Brothel is overly pessimistic or negative. Rees has carefully researched this history and provides a detailed exploration of life on board the Lady Julian, and of the history of those who came to sail on her. Details of life in and beyond the new colony for the key figures round off the book.

For those who enjoy historical fiction, the opening chapters of The Floating Brothel may prove to be a little hard-going. Rees details the social circumstances which led to the use of deportation as a means of relieving pressure on English prisons and, more broadly, English society, as well as the crimes and circumstances of the women who sailed on the Lady Julian. Perseverance with this opening will find the reader drawn in to the tale and to the individual stories of some of those on board, especially that of the ship’s steward, John Nicol, and 19 year old Sarah Whitelam.

Despite its title, The Floating Brothel is not a tale of moral depravity – Rees delves deep into the realities of the relationships and activities on board the ship. This is an absorbing read for anyone with an interest in this era of Australia’s history.

The Floating Brothel
, by Sian Reees
Published by Hodder, 2001.