Review Blog

Mar 17 2015

Birrung the secret friend by Jackie French

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Ill. by Mark Wilson. The Secret Histories series. Angus & Robertson, 2015. ISBN 9780732299439
(Age: Primary) This is the first in a new series from Jackie French called The Secret Histories. The stories will feature lesser known identities of Australian history; lesser known because not much was written about them at the time and sometimes from an unfavourable perspective. Her first subject is Mr Richard Johnson, clergyman to the new colony.
We met Mr Johnson in this author's previous Nanberry: Black brother White. As chaplain to the first white settlement, he was a man who practised what he preached. He had already taken in Birrung, a young indigenous girl whose people had been wiped out by a plague introduced by the new settlers. Johnson knows her as Abaroo. She leads him to two orphans of the colony, Barney and Elsie, barely surviving on their daily rations, who come under his wing as well. They flourish with good care and healthy food from Mr Johnson's equally flourishing vegetable gardens, spared the raids that other gardens suffer because of the high regard for Mr Johnson in the colony. Then the Second Fleet arrives, riddled with disease and death amongst a starving cargo of convicts; and the promised replenishments already appropriated by the corrupt crew. Times can only become darker.
In the meantime, Barney and Elsie are learning more civilised behaviour from Mrs Johnson and her convict housekeeper Sally. Burring is also teaching Barney about the ways of the bush. The more time he spends with her, the more jealous Elsie becomes. We never hear why because Elsie doesn't speak; the reader is given to think her elective mutism was caused by a traumatic past. When Birrung finally leaves the protection of the Johnsons, Barney is warned not to disclose his friendship with her; associations with the 'indians' are frowned upon by the white people. Birrung must remain his secret friend forever.
Within a historical framework featuring real and fictional characters, French gives a realistic vision of life for the first white settlers at Sydney Cove. This book would suit serial reading or novel study in primary school units about this time in Australian History, as an ideal replacement for the much more mature Nanberry.
Kerry Neary

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