Review Blog

Sep 12 2013

The river charm by Belinda Murrell

cover image

Random House 2013. ISBN 9781742757124. pbk., 320pp., RRP $A15.95
(Age: 10-14) Historical fiction, written well, can provide a greater insight into the life and times of a particular period better than any website, textbook or other non-fiction resource. Historical fiction, written well and woven around actual people, places and events can bring the past to life and enable students to really appreciate the contrasts between life in a particular timespan and their own enabling them to reflect on not only the changes that have occurred, but, often, why they have. Such is The river charm by Belinda Murrell.
Based on the author's own family tree which includes Charlotte Barton (Atkinson) the author of the first children's book to be published in Australia A mother's offering to her children, by a lady, long resident in New South Wales, this story tells of the challenges facing Charlotte's family in the 1840s. Set initially in the NSW Southern Highlands where many of the landmarks mentioned still exist (the Hume Highway crosses the Medway Rivulet at the Three Legs O'Man Bridge) Charlotte and her children live in a glorious mansion wanting for nothing, presumably well-catered for by the legacy of her first husband and the children's father. However, being a single female, even a widowed one, was not acceptable in those times and so Charlotte's destiny is in the hands of the executors of James Atkinson's will. A series of events, disclosed later in the story, leads her to marry local George Barton, a mistake she lives to regret for the rest of her life.
Barton is a violent drunk determined to spend and drink his way through his new-found riches, and so Charlotte gathers the children and they flee in fear for their lives to a remote outstation (near the Cambewarra Mountain). Life here allows the reader to appreciate the courage and resilience of those who settled such remote areas, particularly women, such as being two days ride from a doctor who decides the cure for Louisa's croup is to bleed her using leeches, giving her a potion which makes her vomit and then rubbing caustic soda on her neck so that it burns and blisters the skin!
Circumstances take them to Sydney to live, but too poor to live in town, they rent a cottage in a nearby fishing village called Double Bay. However, worse than being a single female, is being a married one who chooses to leave her husband despite his being known as an angry drunkard, and so their situation worsens and Charlotte continues to be involved in a battle with the executors, the lawyers and courts. It is an intriguing tale that will enable the reader to appreciate the journey that women have travelled and endured.
Told to Charlotte's modern-day descendants by Aunt Jessamine with whom they are holidaying, and seamlessly slipping between the generation gap drawn together by a pebble from a river on a charm bracelet, this is a title that should be on the library's shelves. Even though the key character is Charlotte's eldest daughter, also Charlotte, we are introduced to Louisa, the youngest, who went on to become a leading naturalist of her time, evidence of her mother's belief that education was as critical for girls as boys and her total commitment to this.
This book would make a valuable resource to support the History strand of the Australian National Curriculum (there are teachers' notes ) but above all, it is just a strong, engaging read written with the sensitivity and respect that characterise the author's works.
Barbara Braxton

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