Sydney Cove, December 1789
I waited in the line outside the storehouse. Only two convicts were before me – big fellows with tattoos on their arms and dirty bare feet – waiting for their rations too. My tummy was so empty it couldn’t even gurgle.
There was cheese in that storehouse.
I wanted that cheese so bad I could already feel the maggots wriggling against my tongue. Ma used to say that maggots meant food was going bad, but when your tummy is empty, maggots are just extra food. I’d been eating maggots with my cheese for the two years we’d been here in New South Wales, and hadn’t even got a tummy ache. Not from the maggots anyways, Hunger ached worse than bad food.
Barney is a young boy eking out an existence in the first days of Sydney’s settlement. His mother is dead and he’s caring for a girl he found in the days after his mother’s death. Sydney is a tough place and he’s constantly on his guard. Which is why, when he meets Birrung, Richard Johnson and his family, he is slow to trust. But gradually he settles into his new life, working hard and trying to decipher the mysteries around Birrung’s presence in the family. Mark Wilson’s fine drawings at the head of each chapter help to showcase aspects of the fledgling colony. Birrung the Secret Friend is the first in a new series from Jackie French.
Truth, it is said, is stranger than fiction and it’s difficult to look back at the early days of white settlement in Australia and understand some of the peculiarities and beliefs. Told from the perspective of a young illiterate boy, Birrung the Secret Friend shows that education doesn’t guarantee any common sense. French’s Sydney is a tough place, full of thieves and those who cling to the ways of England. But for those who embrace the opportunities offered in Australia, who are prepared to work hard, there is much to be gained. Birrung the Secret Friend also paints a picture of relationships between settlers and ‘Indians’ (as Barney calls them). There is a sadness for what could have been a very different relationship between the two populations, and a theory for why this couldn’t be. A very readable story of childhood friendships in a long-ago Sydney. Recommended for mid-primary readers.
Birrung the Secret Friend, Jackie French Angus & Robertson 2015 ISBN: 9780732299439
review by Claire Saxby, Children’s author and bookseller