Review Blog

Jan 09 2019

Liberty by Nikki McWatters

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University of Queensland Press, 2018. ISBN 9780702260292
(Age: 14+) Highly recommended. Historical fiction. Liberty intertwines three stories: in 1472 France, Jeanne, a peasant girl learns that Charles the Bold and his army is preparing to attack her hometown of Beauvais; in 1797 in Ireland, Betsy becomes involved in the Irish uprising against English rule; and in 1960s Australia, a country girl Fiona becomes involved in university student protests against conscription for the war in Vietnam. Each of them is bereft of their mother, and each struggles in their relationship with their father, trying to assert their independence and clashing with cultural norms and expectations.
Though the lives of the three girls are different they each have to find their inner courage and spirit, drawing on the strength of their female forbears, the names recorded in the ancient Systir Saga - a book that links them all together and which has been handed down through generations of women.
The stories of the French and Irish girls are based on historical accounts: of Jeanne Laisne, or Jeanne Hachette, who rallied the French defenders by hurling herself against the enemy on the ramparts and tossing down the Burgundian flag; and Betsy Gray who fought fearlessly alongside her brother and her lover with the United Irishmen. And while the third heroine, Fiona, is fictitious, her story is based on the anti-conscription 'Big March' of 8 September 1967 in Brisbane, Queensland.
The central theme is liberty or freedom; Jeanne and Betsy become embroiled in physical battles and have to fight to defend themselves and their country. It is interesting that McWatters' modern story is not of a physical conflict but about standing up against forced conscription into war, standing for freedom to protest.
Although initially a little disjointed, the chapters soon pick up momentum, and the reader is drawn into the personal stories of each of the girls, and it is hard to put the book down, carrying the reader on to each dramatic conclusion. Students will enjoy the historical contexts, the courageous heroines and the developing romantic relationships. The messages about the value of education and feminist independence are all very positive. Teachers' notes are available.
Helen Eddy

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