Thursday 27 November 2014

Australian Historical Fiction: The Switherby Pilgrims by Eleanor Spence

Eleanor Spence's book for children, The Switherby Pilgrims: A Tale of the Australian Bush, was originally published in 1967 and reprinted by Bethlehem Books in 2005. The author was born in 1928 in Sydney, New South Wales where she lived for most of her life, apart from a couple of years in England, until her death in 2008. Most of her books, including this one, are set in New South Wales.

Miss Arabella Braithwaite lived with her brother, the Reverend Hugh, in the vicarage of the small town of Switherby near the centre of England. For a number of years Miss Arabella had worked hard to give the poorer children of the town an education but she was hampered in her efforts by the fact that most of the children she taught ended up being sent to work in the local factories.
Ten years after the Battle of Waterloo, a typhus epidemic raged through the town leaving many of the children even more disadvantaged than they had been previously.
Reverend Hugh was planning to marry and both he and his future spouse expected Miss Arabella to remain living at the vicarage, but one day when he and his sister were talking together, he shrewdly guessed his sister was formulating a plan of her own to deal with the children who would otherwise be placed in workhouses.

"You are quite right, Hugh - I have other plans. You will no doubt call them outrageous, but my mind is made up. These children must gave a new start in life, and a chance to do something worthwhile with their lives. So I am going to take them away."

"You mean to another village? I understand conditions are bad almost everywhere just now - "

"Exactly. So I intend to take them to New South Wales."

Miss Arabella, or Missabella as she came to be called by her charges, applied for a land grant in New South Wales and with her group of ten dependents emigrated to Australia a few months after this discussion with her brother.
Upon their arrival in Sydney Cove in 1825, Cammy, a young Aboriginal boy, showed an interest in the group of pilgrims and befriended Robin, a young boy who with his two sisters had been abandoned by his father, Josiah Gracechurch. When Missabella and the children left for the Illawarra Region south of Sydney, Cammy secretly tracked them and became, in his own unique way, a part of the family.

Unbeknownst to Missabella, Josiah Gracechurch had been sentenced to transportation for ten years, and was incarcerated in the very same ship they had sailed upon. He had begun to make his escape plans when he spied his three children on board the ship with their guardian and before long he was able to put his plans into action.

...far from the town and the harbour, a ragged sandy-bearded man was working in the orchard of a farm near Campbelltown. Josiah Gracechurch had no fondness for hard labour, and he knew he was taking a risk in thus exposing himself only a week after his escape...

He had to have food, and some sort of shelter, for a night or two while he laid his plans.

Through some lucky coincidences, Gracechurch found the location of the pilgrims' farm and quickly established his dominion over the vulnerable group. But Cammy had been out hunting when the unwelcome man appeared and the pilgrims had to work out a way for him to get a message to someone who could help them.

Cammy could sense that something was wrong, certainly. His affection for Robin gave him an urge to rush out and defend the child, but a more primitive emotion soon succeeded it. The ways of the white man were still strange and bewildering to Cammy, no matter how much he enjoyed sharing the life of the orphans on the hill-top. Their ways were not yet completely his, nor could their notions of right and wrong ever become quite clear to him. He did not know this other white man, nor could he predict what the stranger's attitude towards himself would be, therefore, he, Cammy, would wait and watch until the whole situation clarified itself.

The Switherby Pilgrims is suitable for readers from about ages 10 to 12 years or as a read aloud for ages 8 years and up.
The time period of the book coincides with:

* Ambleside Online Year 5 Term 1 (1800 - 1840) 

* The Australian History Curriculum: Year 5 - The Australian Colonies.

The book contains this note:

The character of Missabella, in the Switherby Pilgrims, is an echo (although entirely fictional) of the fascinating pioneer, Mrs Caroline Chisholm, an outstanding woman of the nineteenth century who made provision for young immigrant women in Australia.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography has an article on Caroline Chisholm.

Linking up with Brona's Books...

Monday 24 November 2014

'I Will Honour Christmas in my Heart'

I've started reading aloud  A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens using the beautifully illustrated version above. This version is illustrated by Robert Ingpen, an Australian artist. We have a number of books illustrated by Ingpen, all quite different in subject matter from one another, and yet again he demonstrates his skill with the magnificent job he does in capturing the feel of Dickens' world in this lovely book.

Scrooge followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity. He looked out.
The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

'I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.'

Silent Night: The Song and its Story by Margaret Hodges; illustrated by Tim Ludwig

A warm and touching book which tells how the hymn, Silent Night, came to be written in Austria in 1818; how it spread from country to country and the original composers, Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber were forgotten for a time. The book follows the hymn through the years to Christmas 1914 when, during a truce at Christmas, the German soldiers began to sing the carol from the trenches and were joined by British voices from across no-man's-land...and into a Russian prison camp during the same war...and even to the Korean War.
This book would appeal to a range of ages. The words of the hymn, piano music & chords are included.

Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo; illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

Great Joy uses the story of a young girl, Frances, whose heart goes out to a poor organ grinder and his monkey out in the cold in the week before Christmas, to awaken compassion and the message of joy that Christmas brings. Set in the 1940's, the illustrations are large and have a lovely softness.
When the time comes for Frances to say her lines at the Christmas pageant, all she can do is think about the poor man and the monkey out on the streets but the gift of compassion within her rises and gives voice to the message of Christmas at the time when it is needed.

Kate DiCamillo said that this book began for her with the image of an organ grinder playing music in the depth and darkness of winter and that this music led her to the heart of the story:
"In a dark time, doors will sometimes magically open and let us step inside to the warmth and light of a community."

The book is recommended for ages 4 to 8.


Tuesday 18 November 2014

Australian Children's Literature: To the Wild Sky by Ivan Southall (1921-2008)

It was the strangest feeling, as though they had climbed into this aeroplane ages ago and had been in it ever since. As though, in some way, there had been a trick of time and they were its captives...

Six children, two girls and four boys, from four different families, board the Hennessey family's small private plane one afternoon to make the journey to a homestead in New South Wales for a weekend to celebrate Gerald Hennessy's fourteenth birthday.
Shortly into the trip, the pilot suffers a heart attack and Gerald has to take over the controls. With only minimal experience and knowledge and no one to turn to for guidance, Gerald keeps the plane in the air while desperately trying to figure out where they are. With dust and cloud obscuring his vision, he wonders how he is ever going to get the plane to land safely.

What course was he to fly? If the winds were set in such a way that he was actually tracking over ground on 315 he might end up over the deserts, the real deserts of rock and salt and sand, and if he landed there no one would ever find them.

He had to fly north.

He had to fly away into heaven alone knew what, because he dared not to anything else. Dared not even go down, groping for the ground, hoping for a miracle, hoping for the homestead, any homestead to appear like a harbour bar after a rough crossing.

After flying for as long as long as the fuel supply allows him, Gerald crash lands the plane in the water close to a beach. They are all able to get to shore but lose everything that could be useful to them including food and drinking water.

The first few chapters of To the Wild Sky introduces the various characters and focuses on the individual children: how they perceive themselves and their companions. Gerald is the boy who has everything - charm, good looks, popularity and rich parents. At the first he is regarded as the hero but as the story continues other characters take the lead and the strengths and abilities that had previously been overshadowed by Gerald's are revealed.
The story gains momentum in chapter five and becomes more of a suspenseful adventure as it continues.

Someone once said that 'crisis reveals character,' and as the author probes into the behaviour displayed by the six children he reveals aspects of each of their personalities that might otherwise have remained hidden.

The desperate situation the children are thrown into calls for different strengths and abilities and highlights the fact that they need each other. No one person is the hero. Gerald had flown and landed the plane but he would have drowned if one of his friends hadn't helped him out of the wreckage.
The children's responses are realistic and they each display both altruistic and selfish behaviour at different times.

The book is recommended for ages 11 and up but the descriptive insights into the thoughts and internal processing of the characters and their individual struggles in the face of danger (which the author dwells upon) might be more appreciated by older children. Apart from that, the story is suspenseful enough to keep you reading.

A City Out of Sight is a little known sequel to this book and was published in 1985.
Ivan Southall served during World War 2 as an RAAF pilot and his war experiences are reflected in his writing. In 1971 he was the first non-British medalist to win the Carnegie Medal.

You can read about the author in these news articles here and here.

'Southall was determined to present life honestly, without sentimentality or intentional bias, without denying man's humanity, or glorifying it. 
His personal integrity as much as his writing skill won him numerous literary honours.'
Dr. Maurice Saxby

Friday 14 November 2014

AusReading Month: The Rainbow and the Rose by Nevil Shute

Pilot Ronnie Clarke learns that Johnnie Pascoe, the man who had taught him to fly many years before, has crashed his plane while attempting to rescue a sick child from her isolated home on the rugged west coast of Tasmania. Pascoe is lying badly injured with only the child's mother to nurse him. The child's condition begins to improves but unless Pacoe receives medical attention for his fractured skull he will die.

Clarke is the narrator of the story and as he reminisces over the past and his association with the injured pilot, he makes the decision to go to the small town in Tasmania where Pascoe is based and endeavour to fly a doctor in to the area.

Clarke persuades the reluctant young local doctor to go with him and later finds out that he has never flown before. The first attempt to assist the injured man allows the doctor to drop a suitcase of medical equipment out of the plane onto the tiny airstrip next to the homestead but the doctor himself is unable to get out of the plane. Clarke returns to town as the weather conditions begin to deteriorate.
He spends the night at Pascoe's home waiting for a chance to try again the next day and learns about the older man's past, his secret history and painful memories.

As with all the books I've read by this author, I found the story simple but compelling. Nevil Shute has an easy style but he develops his characters so well. He has the ability to take a very ordinary sort of person, unwrap them and reveal their value and worth in the midst of their weaknesses and foibles. In doing this he helps the reader to empathise with his characters and I always come away from his books with a sense that he must have been a man who understood human nature but his response to that knowledge was not cynicism but kindness.

Throughout this book, Shute uses an interesting flashback technique which confused me at first and I wondered a few times what was going on. After a while I began to enjoy the way he used the technique even though it felt clunky at times. It was an interesting way to divulge information that the narrator would not have known.

This isn't one of his more well known books. Certainly, A Town Like Alice would be his best known book here in Australia and there was a TV mini-series of the story plus an earlier movie version. This is one version I've seen:

Other Nevil Shute books I've read and would recommend are:

Pied Piper  - set in WW2 in England and France.
On the Beach  - (near bottom of post) a novel dealing with a post nuclear catastrophe; set in Southern  Australian.

Nevil Shute Norway was born in England in 1899. He studied Engineering Science and worked as an aeronautical engineer. During World War 2 he worked on the development of secret weapons and after the war he settled in Australia where he lived until his death in 1960.

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