The making of Martin Sparrow by Peter Cochrane
Penguin, 2018. ISBN 9780670074068
(Age: 16+) Recommended. Set on the Hawkesbury river, a community struggles to survive in the early years of the New South Wales Colony.
Emancipated convict Martin Sparrow has led a disastrous life but has been granted the standard thirty acres of land to farm. Having no knowledge or experience, Sparrow's agricultural endeavours are hopeless and he appears to have been set up to fail in the sense that he cannot possibly meet the Government's produce requirements or repayments to his creditors.
In 1806, a monstrous flood completely destroys all of his miserable possessions and produce, prompting him to fantasise about bolting to the fabled paradise West of the Blue Mountains. Aptly named, Sparrow is revealed to be physically weak, unremarkable and unable to assert himself. Lacking a strong sense of identity or purpose, he is susceptible to suggestion and manipulation by violent men with no scruples. Naively accepting tales of easy living in nature's bounty, surrounded by exotic, affectionate women, Sparrow agrees to accompany desperate men on a shambolic expedition to cross the mountains to the mythical land of plenty.
Cruelty and suffering appear on many levels in this story. Convicts struggled in freezing cold and blazing heat to build roads and infrastructure in a colony clawing for survival. Military overseers mistreated convicts, free settlers and each other whilst government administrators profited from the labour and hardship of the convicts and settlers.
The treatment of the local Dharag people by vicious soldiers and bloodthirsty settlers is extreme. Foraging for food on their traditional land is considered theft by settlers who respond with unspeakable brutality, torturing, raping and murdering without any consideration of moral or legal restraint.
Some of the female settlers also lead brutal lives, subjected to sexual violence and exploitation, illegal imprisonment and even being traded and sold by men who consider them property.
In a landscape filled with harsh individuals trying to eke out an existence, Sparrow embarks upon his ill-conceived journey and for the first time in his life comes into contact with solid, decent people. These include a Romany girl who has been grossly mistreated, the local constable charged with trying to sort out complex and dreadful crimes, an eccentric explorer and a kindly landowner.
Fighting to survive in the bush, Sparrow stumbles from one disaster to another, yet the extreme nature of his adventures and reaching the point of no return cause him to commence thinking for himself for the first time in his life. Part of Sparrow's awakening involves consideration of the welfare of others and he develops a capacity for moral consideration and altruism which he had not previously possessed.
Grim in places, this novel is still instantly appealing to those who enjoy historical fiction. I knew I would enjoy this book from the outset and was captured and taken on a long, dark journey.
Recommended for age 16+