Review Blog

Feb 26 2018

Barney and the secret of the French spies by Jackie French

cover image

The Secret Histories series book 4. Angus and Robertson, 2018. ISBN 9781460751305
(Age: 8+) Highly recommended. Themes: New South Wales (1788-1851), Australian history, Convicts, Sydney Town, Spies. When orphaned Barney finds a mute girl hidden under a ledge in the bush outside Sydney Town the pair is taken in by the colony's minister Mr Johnson and his wife, there to thrive with care and tutelage. Barney names the girl Elsie after his dead mother, the pair sent to Australia as convicts several years before. And in looking out for Elsie, Barney pictures a life for them in the new colony as he makes a place for himself. Given land and convict labour, he sets up a small farm along the Parramatta River. Here one day he hopes the two of them will be happy. But when the Johnsons call him to come to Sydney quickly, he arrives to find Elsie in the grip of a debilitating lung complaint and while ill she speaks French.
He is taken aback, as stories of French spies are rife with the threat of a French takeover always on the horizon. La Perousse stopped at Botany Bay when the First Fleet was about to sail to Sydney Cove but he was not heard of again. And later, Baudin stopped for help. while Britain and France were at war. Against this background French has woven her story, that of a young French girl and her family checking on the English defenses, but when her parents are killed by convicts she is left alone.
French very carefully plies the story with an incredible amount of factual information about the early days of Sydney, so cunningly tied with the story that no one will suspect that they are having a fascinating history lesson. Every sentence is replete with meaning, every paragraph gives the reader a substantial lesson in Australia's early days, and all told with adventure and intrigue, sure to reel in the most reluctant of readers. Barney and Elsie are an engaging pair of characters and the secret each holds ensures a captive readership. The illustrations at the start of each chapter, too, give a view of Sydney that will be new to many, encouraging the readers to take notice of small details, reflecting those seen in the text. This is the fourth in French's series, Secret Histories.
Fran Knight

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