Review Blog

Aug 06 2019

Shepherd by Catherine Jinks

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Text, 2019. ISBN: 9781925773835.
(Age: 14+) Recommended. Catherine Jinks has won many awards for her writing for Young Adults, including being four times the winner of the Australian Children's Book Council Book of the Year. This latest novel, Shepherd, is set in early New South Wales at the time of convict transportation. The main character and first person narrator is Tom Clay, the only survivor of a notorious poaching family, who has been transported for his crime. The reader is first introduced to Tom on a remote and small sheep property where he guards the sheep by day and sleeps at night in a small hut with another transportee. Tom is quickly established as a patient and careful shepherd despite his past history of poaching. The sheep are named and accounted for at the end of each day and Tom has special rapport with the sheep dogs. Tom is interested in his surroundings, the plants and the animals, and learns the topography of the area quickly despite its alien, to him, qualities. He regrets not having the kind of deep understanding of the natural world that he had in his home county. The action begins quickly with the arrival of a new shepherd, Rowdy, and the reappearance of a brutal convict escapee who has earlier attempted to kill Tom before disappearing, presumed dead. Carver, however, is far from dead and is determined to destroy the shepherds and the farm itself. The action is like that of a nightmare in which whatever Tom and his co-workers do to protect themselves and however badly Carver is injured he always reappears vengeful and sadistic. It becomes clear that Tom is the only one alive on the farm apart from Carver, but still Carver pursues him, forcing Tom to eventually make a brutal choice.
The descriptions of life on the farm and the desperate struggle against Carver are interspersed with Tom's memories of his upbringing in England. After his mother's early death he is loved only by his dogs. His father is a hard, violent man who is eventually hanged for murder, and Tom, a desperate twelve year old, survives by living off the land. He is caught, sentenced and transported, but seems to regret leaving only the land that he understood so well. He lives by several precepts; silence is preferable to speech (Rowdy doesn't agree) and that animals' loyalty must be respected. The reader is prepared for the final scene in which a young indigenous boy saves Tom, by the frequent mentions of the 'blacks' whose fires can be seen in the distance, by Tom's realisation that Carver is responsible for the acts of savagery that they have been blamed for and by his expressed longing to understand this new natural world.
The action is frequently brutal, dramatic and fast-paced. The descriptions of life on the farm are detailed and precise. A strong picture is established of the hut, the farmhouse, the cookhouse and the home paddock, all places where Tom and Rowdy must try to escape from Carver, and of the weapons that are available (muskets, pistols, carbines and their idiosyncrasies). The thorough research is reflected in the authenticity of the descriptions of place and characters. The language is simple, engaging and vivid.
The novel is recommended for readers older than thirteen and is perhaps one that boys may enjoy.
Jenny Hamilton

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