Review Blog

Dec 17 2010

Scout by Nicole Pluss

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Penguin, 2010. ISBN 978 0 14 3204589.
(Ages 11+) Historical Fiction. Aboard the ship, Scout, headed for the colony of South Australia, Kit and her mother are aghast from the start when they are sent to the bottom of the ship with the steerage passengers rather than the cabin they have booked in the intermediate deck. But one of the passengers, a landed gentleman, along with his whole staff and family has taken over that deck with his belongings, so Kit and her mother must comply. Luckily they are reassigned and spend their weeks aboard ship with people they would not normally have mixed with, and are deferential and grateful. Pluss easily outlines the tedium and everyday monotony of the days and weeks spent at sea, underlining the challenge of keeping oneself private but at the same time, making friends. A range of people inhabit the ship, from the easy Clarissa; the sailor, Angel, with whom Kit develops a relationship; the wealthy family with their entourage bound for South Australia, the crew and captain. Each has their own story to tell, and Pluss effortlessly draws us into the confined world that makes up one of these tiny ships.
All the time I recalled the Maritime Museum at Port Adelaide with its mockup of a ship bringing settlers to Adelaide in the nineteenth century and was struck again with these people's tenacity and courage. Coming to Australia voluntarily in the mid nineteenth century is a step beyond comprehension. Pluss has told their stories with verve and relish, and it is fascinating to see that this book is designated non fiction in some quarters. Pluss' research is obvious, her depth of knowledge about the ship is infectious and the passengers and crew that she has presented will make readers stop and give thought to their own forebears and the privations they suffered in reaching these shores and by implication, take time to think about the refugees who brave the seas north of Australia.
The hitting of an iceberg in the Southern Ocean is the impetus for a huge change in all their lives, as many who abandon the ship aboard lifeboats, are never seen again, while the few who stay aboard, eventually find safety with a whaler. Again and again, the reader is reminded of the precarious nature of these voyages in uncertain seas. And as I write this, the news is of some 30 refugees drowning north of Christmas Island, making the poignancy of this novel even more crushing.
The romance between Kit and the sailor will keep many female readers intrigued, but what kept me reading was the very real setting and the nature of the relationships between people compared with those of today.
Fran Knight

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