Review Blog

Jun 05 2019

Pirate boy of Sydney Town by Jackie French

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HarperCollins, 2019. ISBN: 9781460754795.
(Age: 12-14) Recommended. Themes: Friendship, loyalty, pirates. Author and historian Jackie French brings another chapter of Australia's past to life with a tale of privateers and pirates, smugglers and seafaring. Pirate Boy of Sydney Town is set in the early nineteenth century, a riches to rags story, told through the eyes of young Ben Huntsmore.
Ben lives with his wealthy family on his mother's farming estate in England. He loves his life, helping with the harvest and plans his future here. Due to his ship-owner father's excessive gambling the estate is lost, and their lives are turned upside down. A life in the new colonies seems advantageous but their voyage to Australia is marred by the death of his mother who succumbs to fever. Ben's compassion for the convicts imprisoned below decks is at odds with his father's views. On arrival in Sydney Town life is strange and confronting, with soldiers and convicts, food and lifestyle. Ben forms a friendship with Sally Appleby a convict's daughter who lives on a farm.
Ben's father plans to sail to Western Australia and capture Dutch trading ships off the coast. Aboard his father's ship The Golden Girl, Ben proves his worth as lookout in the crow's nest. After a fierce battle with the Dutch ship, the crew mutinies and Ben, his convict friend Higgins and Guwara a young indigenous man escape in a long boat. They hide on the land, as Higgins' leg wound heals. Guwara teaches Ben how to hunt, search for fresh water and survive in the harsh environment.
Their epic sea voyage follows the coastline across the Great Australian Bight fighting the elements, sea, sun, thirst and near starvation. They land at Kangaruh Island, named by Matthew Flinders. Here the trio meet with Bucky Morris and his Indian (aboriginal) women slaves. Ben is treated as a toff sleeping in the main hunt while Higgins sleeps locked in a storeroom. Rest and recovery, good food and fresh water, help revive the trio. Escape, sacrifice, loss, loneliness and finally hope prevails as Ben sails single-handled through the heads and into the harbour, his two friends lost along the way.
French is a master storyteller, she weaves the realities of colonial life, the hardships, and the treatment of indigenous peoples into this fictional novel. She brings the landscape to life, and her vivid prose, attention to detail, sensory atmospheres and realistic portrayals of the main characters make Pirate Boy of Sydney Town a powerful novel suited to readers from twelve years. What an excellent resource for students researching Australia's colonial history including Matthew Flinders' travels. Her insightful Aboriginal perspectives shed a different light on commonly held understandings. A teacher's guide is available.
Rhyllis Bignell

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