Jackie French: Nanberry

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The sky grew grey, then pink, and a too-bright blue. Yagali had vanished. He struggled to sit up. Why did his body feel like a jellyfish? He peered around frantically, looking for her. Had she run into the bush to find the others, or tried to swim out to cool her body? But even her footprints had been eaten by the waves.

‘Gumna?’ he cried to his grandfather. ‘Wianga?’ he called to his mother. But they only muttered, their eyes blank, their minds lost in the land of fever.

An 8 year old Cadigal boy, Nanberry, is on the brink of death by small pox, when he is discovered by Surgeon White in 1789. In an unprecedented move for his time, Surgeon White adopts Nanberry – not as a servant – but as his son.

Nanberry: Black Brother White is the story of this family during the early years of the colony. After Surgeon White adopts Nanberry he takes a convict mistress, Rachel Turner, who bears him a second son, Andrew White. The two brothers grow up in limbo. Nanberry hovers between his Cadigal and settler families, uncertain whether he will ever be initiated as a Cadigal man. Andrew must be separated from his mother and his convict connections when he is sent to England for a civilised education.

Like many of Jackie French’s other young adult novels, this one is based heavily on historical records: Nanberry, Surgeon White, Rachel, Andrew and (spoilers!) Rachel’s husband Thomas Moore – were all real people. They lived in incredibly difficult times, yet they have all left real and lasting legacies in Australian society. Rachel was one of the earliest women in English legal history to be defended in court against a charge. In Australia, Rachel helped found orphanages, schools and the Bank of NSW (currently Westpac); and her husband helped construct some of the earliest church buildings and founded Moore Theological College(!).

However, despite all these happy outcomes, Nanberry is a tragic read in the light of over 200 years of colonised history. This book is written for young people but Jackie French does not hide the violence of the colony, particularly for indigneous people and for female convicts. Nanberry himself faces terrible trauma and dislocation. And although he negotiates these circumstances with incredible courage and poise, although his story ends nobly, it is hard to take pleasure in it knowing the suffering of countless indigenous people in the generations to follow him. Similarly Rachel’s story turns out for the  better, but it opens up a window into the suffering and abuse of hundreds of other women who were sent to Australia the early days of the colony.

An educational read, a gripping read, but a sobering one. It sounds like it was a sobering book to write for Jackie French too.

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