Ruth Park (1917-2010) was a prolific, multiple award-winning, New Zealand born Australian author. The author’s background in rural New Zealand and her later experience of the Great Depression while living in Sydney, gave her much to draw upon in her writing.
Come Danger, Come Darkness is set on Norfolk Island, about 1,000 km off the east coast of Australia. The author lived on the island for a number of years and described its natural features vividly.
Norfolk Island was discovered by Captain Cook in 1774 on his second voyage around the world. In 1788 a settlement was established on the island. This was later abandoned, but a second settlement began in 1825 and continued until 1855, and Norfolk Island came to be described as the 'Hell of the Pacific.' The story takes place at this time in the island's history.
Thirteen-year old Otter Cannon and his seven year old brother, Paddy Paul, were brought from Ireland to Sydney by their recently widowed mother. The plan had been to join Major Daniel Cannon, her husband’s brother, and his family, in order that her boys would grow up as gentlemen and follow the family tradition of serving as officers in the army.
However, by the time the bereaved family arrived in Sydney, Major Cannon had been appointed Commandant of the prison settlement at Norfolk Island, a nineteen-day sea voyage from New South Wales, and the plan had to change.
The boys’ mother made the agonising decision to send the boys to Norfolk Island to join their Uncle and his family while she remained in Sydney.
The younger boy was excited about going to the island. His ambition was to be an army officer just as his father had been, but Otter’s greatest desire was to become a surgeon. This was frowned upon and his mother hoped that his uncle’s influence would change the boy’s mind.
The steersman skilfully inched the vessel as far as he dared towards the land, and the anchors whomped into the placid sea. Now the sounds of the land, forgotten since Sydney, drifted towards them - human voices, the freak of a windlass, the sweet splash of the cascade. In spite of himself, Otter was captivated by the scene. In full sunrise, the island looked like an illustration from a romance of kings and goblins. The steep plushy hills to the west demanded castles on their heights, of watch towers, or hermits’ ruined cells. But there were no towers except the pines, no ruins but the blocks of black stone piled on the narrow beach like wrecked masonry.
This is an exciting, action-filled story that keeps your attention until the very end. Mystery, danger, a whale hunt, escaped convicts, shipwreck; themes of loyalty, courage and justice - a great choice for a family read aloud with much to discuss and explore.
Not far away he saw a whale’s head, an old bull’s, marbled with age, water gushing out of the downcurved mouth in torrents. Food, mostly tiny shrimps, was retained behind the black baleen that fringed the animal’s jaw...
Like an island emerging from the sea, the whale surfaced, tearing up the water, cascades foaming down its wet-leather flanks. It was over twenty metres long and nearly three metres higher than the men’s heads. It’s one visible eye, blue with a brown ring, glared in astonishment from that wall of head. Whissssht! The harpooner sent the javelin-like weapon hissing into its flank.
The whale hunt might be a little intense for a sensitive soul; a couple of times the word ‘damned’ is used and once an Irish Catholic convict cried, ”Oh, Holy Mary, they’re on to us!” Otherwise I’d say about age 10 years and up for a child to read on their own.
The book brims with the understanding, empathy and insight that Ruth Park had for her young audience and her writing style is excellent.
163 pages; out of print but available for a reasonable price at AbeBooks. I noticed many of the book sellers were in Austalia or N.Z. so check postage as it may be cheaper if you're ordering from either of those places.
Norfolk Island was self-governed for 36 years but that changed in 2015 when the Norfolk Island Legislation Amendment Bill 2015 replaced the Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly.
Some Norfolk Island information is here & here.
Author information: Ruth Park, A Celebration.
Linking up with Brona's Books for the AusReading Challenge 2017