Friday 29 August 2014

Australian Historical Fiction for Primary Age Children - Verity of Sydney Town by Ruth C. Williams

Verity of Sydney Town, an historical novel, was first published in 1950 by a Sydney based author and was awarded Children's Book of the Year in 1957. It is set in New South Wales during the period of Governor Macquarie's time in office (early 1800's) against a backdrop of pioneering farmers, bushrangers and convicts, and it is an interesting and lively account of the times. 

A strange little place...this Sydney Town, built as it was round a cove which the natives called Warrang; neither entirely a seaport nor a country town, nor a convict settlement, nor a military outpost, and yet, in appearance, all these things in part. Covered by a dome of blue sky, flanked by a glorious harbour and the mystery of lonely headlands, it had a beauty of its own; and yet the town itself --despite the orderliness and seemliness insisted upon by His Excellency, despite neat fences and whitewash, flag-stones and clean-swept paths -- retained an appearance of raggedness, like a pretty lass in a frayed petticoat.

Verity is a twelve year old girl whose father, a ship's captain, has been lost at sea. The young girl is put under the care of unsympathetic guardians in Sydney Town who, believing the captain to be dead, eventually send her out west to live with a farmer and his family; charitable people who knew her father and wanted to show kindness to his daughter.
Verity settles into her new life and shares in the hard work of the farm. She is befriended by Humphrey, the farmer's son and Slippery Britter, a young, cheerful, and warm-hearted ex-convict who works at the farm.

After Verity has been living at the farm for some time, news comes that the Hawkesbury River is in flood. The farmer and his wife, fearing for the welfare of their married daughter and her baby, leave Verity and Humphrey in Britter's care and travel to the Hawkesbury region to bring them to safety.
While they are gone, the farm receives some unwelcome visitors. A group of bushrangers, one of them an ex-convict who used to work at the farm, break in and threaten the lives of the two children. Britter's bravery and quick thinking rescues them and the three of them run away into the night but the bushrangers are in hot pursuit and Britter is wounded. Humphrey's intervention saves him from being murdered and the three of them stagger away in the dark and rain to a place of safety.

Disappointment awaits them when they arrive at the closest habitation only to find it deserted and the route to Windsor cut off by flood. Britter suggests that they go back home as the farmer would return before long and the bushrangers would be quick in making their escape. They return to the farm to find other strangers there and the homestead badly damaged by fire.

There is an episode in the book where the two children decide to 'reform' their friend Britter and ask him to promise never to resort to stealing again - the crime for which he was transported to Australia in the first place. He was a little resentful at the time at the presumption he was still a thief, but the tables were later turned when they arrived at the deserted town. Ravenous with hunger, Humphrey suggests forcing a window and helping themselves to some food but Britter would have none of it.

'But I am so hungry!' Humphrey tried again, on a plaintive note.

'So was I when I stole the plum-pudding,' replied Britter, quite unmoved. 'But they sent me to Botany Bay for it. No you don't! You don't catch me stealing nothin'. You wanted to reform me, didn't you? Well, you has, see! And a reformed felon has to be as careful of his reputation as any dainty miss in her first season. Why, buck up, man! A little hunger won't hurt you. And I ought to know!

Tighten your belt, lad, and shut your mouth! And when you are a man remember this day and start a movement for every judge to try a little fasting himself before condemning any man to death for stealing a bite of food.'

The book would probably be most enjoyed by children around 10 to 12 years of age and both boys and girls would appreciate the tale, so don't be put off by the title. It is a story centred around a young girl but the author allows other characters to also take centre stage and in so doing has broadened the story's appeal.

Governor Macquarie is portrayed as a humane man who endeavoured to deal justly with the convicts. Some background information on his time in office is given here.

The book would fit well chronologically in Term 1 of Ambleside Online Year 5 (early 1800's).


Bonnie said...

My kids are a bit too young but I wouldn't have known about this book otherwise, thanks for sharing

Carol said...

You're very welcome.

Amy Maze said...

Thanks for sharing about this book!