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pbk., 144pp., RRP $A12.99 ISBN 9780732299439
Sydney Cove. December 1789. The new colony is 18 months old and Barney Bean is waiting in line for his share of the meagre rations doled out on Wednesdays and Saturdays. He is so hungry he can taste the maggots in the cheese he is hoping for because they are extra meat. He’s also hoping that there will be some cheese left because his pannikin was stolen the night his mother died and you can’t boil dried peas or rice without a pannikin.
In front of him in the line is a convict who, even with his arm in a sling, looks as strong as a bullock and Barney mentally dubs him Bullock Man watching him warily him because he knows that he and his rations are at risk the minute he is out of sight of the storehouse. And he’s right… Bullock Man sees him being slipped some cheese (which he had been denied) and follows him. Barney scarpers and scampers amongst the huts with Bullock Man in pursuit not knowing that this chase will change the course of his life forever when Bullock Man is stopped in his tracks by a stone thrown from a beautiful yet mysterious Aboriginal girl wearing European clothing. Even the fact that she is an “Indian” is remarkable because it was thought that they had all been wiped out by the plague that hit them so soon after the arrival of the Europeans, but for one to be wearing shoes and “a clean dress, all bright with tiny blue showers on it, not the nothing colour of convicts’ clothes”???
This is Abaroo, or Birrung (meaning ‘star’), as she calls herself, an Aboriginal girl taken under the kindly wing of Mr Richard Johnson, the colony’s first clergyman and this is the story of Birrung, Barney and the enigmatic Elsie who never speaks but whose eyes have clearly seen more than they should have. Flourishing amongst the squalor and dishevelment that is Sydney in its first year is the oasis of Mr Johnson’s vegetable gardens, tended and nurtured to feed a colony that is virtually on the edge of starvation because none of the promised storeships have arrived from England and the inhabitants, reluctant residents at best, have neither the skills nor the inclination to help themselves by growing their own food. Even Barney doesn’t know that a seed the size of a speck of dust can grow into a magnificent carrot! Mrs Johnson reads the children stories and Barney’s favourite is that of Jesus and the fishes and the loaves. “We could have used Jesus in the colony.” Yet all around them are the riches of the bush – bush tucker – some of whose secrets Birrung shows Barney. But because of the times they live in, his friendship and all that he learns has to remain a secret forever.
Although the Second Fleet finally arrives, it brings so many more problems than it solves…
Jackie French is a master of historical fiction for children and she tells fascinating stories of the not-so-well-known parts of our history, putting the reader right in the story so it becomes a personal experience not just a painting that has an historical backdrop. You are there, right alongside the characters with your tummy rumbling but feeling glad that there is a fridge with cheese and other goodies nearby! While Barney Bean. Elsie and Sally are fictional characters, Mr and Mrs Johnson and Birrung were very real as were the circumstances in which the story is set. Painted in less than flattering terms by others in Australia’s history such as Elizabeth Macarthur, and only tolerated by Arthur Phillip who had a different agenda, Birrung the Secret Friend shows a different side of Richard Johnson and the good that he did for the establishment of the fledgling colony. He was revered by the convicts and those who benefited not only from the produce of his gardens but his ministrations in their hours of need. In fact, Jackie writes, “I had always taken the Johnsons at the valuation of most historians have accepted: well-meaning but ineffectual. But as I read their letters and other writing, I became stunned that such an extraordinary and compassionate couple had been so misremembered,”
This is the first in The Secret Histories series from Jackie to be published by HarperCollins, a series that will reveal many more secrets at many levels. There is an extensive teaching guide at http://4edd9444c072ad07aff7-11d966b2703d5a5467932b6516b2610f.r67.cf2.rackcdn.com/teaching-guides/TG-9780732299439.pdf explicitly linked to the Australian Curriculum, providing an even more compelling reason to have this in your collection – if you needed one!
Barbara Braxton, Teacher Librarian
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