Review Blog

Mar 11 2013

Escape from Cockatoo Island by Yvette Poshoglian

cover image

My Australian story series. Scholastic Australia, 2013. ISBN 9781742832456.
(Age 9+) In 1879, eleven-year-old Olivia Markham is taken from a Newcastle orphanage to the Biloela Public Industrial School for Girls on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour. The pages of a diary, one of her few possessions, reveal the effects of incarceration in an institution characterised by punitive discipline, low expectations, limited educational opportunities and the expectation that inmates contribute to their keep by working.
Yvette Poshoglian's contribution to the My Australian story series explains how one child might have coped with these desolate surroundings. Her narrative is not dramatic but focuses instead on Olivia's emotional and intellectual development. During the six months that Olivia spends at Biloela, her longing for an education and a family are eventually realised, with the support of a teacher who recognises her potential and a childless couple who offer her a home. Her journey enables the author to provide insights into a period of rapid social change. Women dreamed of university admission, Sydney was developing into a modern, cosmopolitan city and growing public concern for the welfare of the disadvantaged led to the reform of institutions like Biloela.
Historical details lend authenticity to the narrative and suggest that Yvette Poshoglian has conducted extensive research into conditions on Cockatoo Island and the daily life of the period. The incorporation of contemporary language into dialogue is one of the challenges of writing historical fiction. Olivia's use of words from Scottish dialect is not explained, but her teacher's insistence that they be replaced with socially acceptable English reflects the attitudes of the era. Readers may find the term 'street arab' uncomfortable in the light of modern sensitivities. Its meaning is not explained in the text but is included in historical notes. Ten pages of this background information owe much to the author's academic training and her ability to identify the broader social implications of Olivia's story.
Escape from Cockatoo Island is an engaging and valuable addition to a series that has been bringing Australian history vividly to life for over a decade.
Elizabeth Bor

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