Review Blog

May 02 2016

Australian Bushrangers series by Jane Smith

cover image

Big Sky Publishing, 2014
Captain Thunderbolt. ISBN 9781922132574
Ben Hall. ISBN 9781922132697
Captain Starlight. ISBN 9781922132710
Frank Gardiner. ISBN 9781922132673
Captain Moonlite. ISBN 9781922132581
Themes: Bushrangers; Australian History. This series is written in a simple style with some sidebar excerpts to fill in detail. The index would enable the text to be used by young students for research, but the books in this series are easy to read from cover to cover and could even become teacher-shared texts during a unit of work on early Australian History during the mid-1800s. Inferences about what life was like during this period could also be made (in connection with Year 5 Australian Curriculum History content.)
Captain Thunderbolt
This short biography and detail of the exploits of 'Captain Thunderbolt' (Frederick Wordsworth Ward) gives an overview of his life and his career on the wrong side of the law. Thunderbolt is represented as a 'gentleman' rogue who enjoyed support from the wider public despite his attempts to improve his own circumstances by thieving. Smith gives brief accounts of the chronology of his life and deeds and the book includes some evidence of Primary sources for the historical account.
Ben Hall
Ben Hall, another 'gentleman' bushranger, who despite being the child of ex-convicts, appeared to have a more promising future until he met up with the notorious bushranger Frank Gardiner. This book details the robberies of Ben Hall and the changing faces in his gang in the 1860s. The circumstances that led to his notoriety and the ultimate outcome of his life of crime are well detailed by the author, with sketches, primary sources and photographs used to illustrate the text.
Captain Starlight
This book focuses on two bushrangers, Frank Pearson and Harry Readford, who might potentially have inspired the character Captain Starlight from the Rolf Boldrewood book Robbery Under Arms (published in 1888 after first appearing as a serial in a Sydney newspaper). Both bushrangers were well read, and may have been successful if they had not sought an 'easier' route by breaking the law and attempting to make easy money via criminal means. Although the author does not speculate about society at the time, it is apparent from their crimes, that the two 'Captain Starlight' characters sought to exploit the wide and poorly policed areas of New South Wales and Queensland in the 1800s. The legal system also was well exploited by these lawbreakers. The author has made brief comparisons between Pearson and Readford, but has also indicated how they pursued their crime path in some detail.
Frank Gardiner
Frank Gardiner was notorious, leading a life of crime that involved theft, highway robbery and attacks on the police who came to arrest him. Mid-19th century life was tough in the rural regions of NSW, and even those who were attempting to live honestly were tempted to make their way by illegal means. The police were not well-respected because they represented the authority of the government which was a target for many who had come to hate taxes and their impoverished existence, and the added influence of convict heritage may have had its own impacts. Into this environment, the well-spoken and affable Gardiner (aka Christie) was easily able to draw a collection of the disaffected and pursue a career of crime. This book details his pursuits and explores why he was respected and protected by many of the local citizens of NSW despite his illegal activities. This is an interesting stand-alone book, but together with the rest of the series gives an insight into early life in the colony.
Captain Moonlite
Andrew George Scott became known as 'Captain Moonlite', who despite coming from a good family and having a religious background, ended up on the wrong side of the law. Scott was educated and had prospects for a career in the developing colony (after migrating from Ireland via New Zealand). A hold-up in the local bank implicated Scott and a pathway of lies and deceit revealed Scott as a complicated man with a tendency to performance. The web of intrigue tightened around him and his prison experiences impacted his life. He had a complicated and high view of his own opinions (he would defend himself in court with dramatic fervour and went on a speaking tour to promote prison reform) and was also able to convince others to follow his instructions. Although a 'gentleman', he was not as amiable in his approach as other bushrangers in this series and there could also be some conjecture about his mental stability and his possible homosexuality. The fact that jobs were hard to find for those who had served jail sentences created a desperation that led to his short-lived bushranging career which ended on the gallows. This book reveals a complex character and a complicated set of circumstances and although the social context is not examined in detail, gives hints about how bushranging became a choice for Captain Moonlite and his less well-known companions. This is perhaps less likely to be used as a read-aloud text for Year 5 students as part of the Australian Curriculum - the behaviour of Captain Moonlite is harder to fathom for a younger audience.
Carolyn Hull

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