Jackie French: Nanberry


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.


Colin Meloy: Wildwood

How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries. In fact, if she were to list her worries right then and there as she sat spellbound on the park bench and watcher her little brother, Mac, carried aloft in the talons of these five black crows, puzzling out just how this feat was being done would likely come in dead last…

And so opens the adventure of Wildwood: the story of Prue and Curtis on an incredible adventure to the Impassable Wilderness. It’s a kind of Narnian story: two kids stumbling into a magical place, where animals talk and take you flying, where things look quaint at first and then you discover there is an evil queen, and there is a battle to end all battles – will good triumph over evil? – and then (no spoilers) the story ends. It was a great read.


This book was on the Premier’s Reading list for children in years 5-6, so I’m not sure I am the target audience. But I had to read this book because it was written by Colin Meloy, the frontman of the Decemberists, and illustrated by his wife, Carson Ellis, who is responsible for all of the Decemberists’ artwork. I love this band. One of the distcint things about them is the way their songs tell epic stories from all times and places. They sing vivid and imaginative songs about star-crossed lovers in fighting gangssoldiers in Iraq,  David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, guerrilla wars, the arrival of a Spanish princess, the Japanese legend of the Crane Wife. They reached stunning highs with the saga of the Mariner’s Revenge, and then followed that up with The Hazards of Love: an entire album telling a tragic fairy-tale story of two lovers thwarted by an evil queen.

So obvs Colin Meloy has an incredibly vivid imagination, and a creative way with words.

Given the expectations I had, Wildwood did not disappoint. It was like reading a Decemberists‘ song, it was vibrant and exciting and it opened another window into the creative mind of Colin Meloy. And Carson Ellis’ illustrations were simply beautiful. There is no other word for them. They were perfect.


Wildwood is the first of three novels, but, as much as I enjoyed it, I think I will leave it at this one. I loved to have one of my favourite musicians as the guide for this adventure, but I think one adventure with Colin Meloy is enough. Maybe next time I will read something higher up the Premier’s Reading Challenge list!


Ali Smith: ‘How to be Both’

Confession: I read this book because I liked the photo on the cover. I’m not even sure how to explain this book, so first up, maybe you’d like to check out this review over at the Guardian.


How to be both is all about confused binaries and there are only two chapters: two chapters one. And Ali Smith printed half her books with one chapter first and the other half with the other. If I had bought this book at Better Read than Dead I would have started the story with George, a grieving (female) teenager from Cambridge. But I decided to borrow it from Five Dock library, so instead I started the story with Francescho , the ghost of an Italian Renaissance painter (and female – it took me 1.5 reads to work that out!). My decision to borrow the same book meant a different story!! What!?

I am a sucker for re-imagined stories about artists, I like the way they open a window to reinterpret real-life art or music in a different way. And I loved the way Ali Smith kept muddling my brain around with the two halves of the story, and the confusion between those binary categories – mostly around male/female, but also past/future, joy/grief, life/death, tangible/imagined.

But then even more, I loved reading about two different people and their worlds. It took me straight into 14th century Italy and suburban Cambridge. Thanks Ali Smith.

Finally, I loved this gem of a quote: about how a close relationship opens up profound communication and new meanings. It’s written about two friends, about love, but I read it and felt like Ali Smith was trying to describe what it meant for me to find and connect with and love fellow Christians.

It is also like H is trying to find a language that will make personal sense to George’s ears. No one has ever done this before for George. She has spent her whole life speaking other people’s languages. It is new to her. The newness of it has a sort of power that can make the old things – as old as these songs, even as old as Latin itself – a kind of new, but a kind that doesn’t dismiss their, what would you call it? … Their classic status? She nods. That’s it. Whatever is happening makes them new but lets them be old both at once.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: ‘The Beautiful and Damned’

‘The Beautiful and Damned’ is a tragic story about a Gloria and Anthony, who meet and marry in Edwardian America (is there such a thing? I mean, I know Edward wasn’t an American monarch… Let’s call it ‘America-in-the-1910s’). The pair are wealthy, leisurely, self obsessed and the centre of the New York social scene.

Scott has written the story in three parts, taking us first through Gloria and Anthony’s courtship, then their marriage and then their… let’s call it… ‘settling-down’. I expected a clear tragic arc through the parts: things looking up in the first part, realities of life hitting in the second and then a plunge down into darkness in the third. But it was a little more nuanced than that. Which, of course, made it all the more tragic to read.


Knowing also about the incredibly difficult relationship between F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald also made it a tragic read. My impulse at every moment was to read this story as autobiographical, and even though the plot doesn’t line up neatly with the events of their lives, I would bet all the money that Scott used events and truths about their own relationship to create these two incredibly self-destructive characters.

The book was long and sometimes hard work to get through, but whenever I felt like giving up I would stumble across beautifully poetic passages. The quote I remember clearest was Anthony discovering ‘privilege’ through his military service – an interesting take on it from a rich white man:

The world was divided primarily into those two classifications.

It occurred to him that all strongly accentuated classes, such as the military, divided men into two kinds: their own kind — and those without. To the clergyman there were clergy and laity, to the Catholic there were Catholics and non-Catholics, to the negro there were blacks and whites, to the prisoner there were the imprisoned and the free, and to the sick man there were the sick and the well… So, without thinking of it once in his lifetime, he had been a civilian, a layman, a non-Catholic, a Gentile, white, free, and well…

‘The Beautiful and Damned’ made me thankful for contemporary mental health care. And also for the good support Matt and I have had through our marriage, all the marriage courses we have done to help us communicate well and not be mean to each other. Ugh – it was painful to read about so many little quirks in their relationship escalating into poisonous habits. But still worth it for those beautiful passages embedded throughout. I’m glad I persevered to the end.

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer: ‘The Princess of the Chalet School’

I am being honest about what I’m reading here: the next book in the pile was a lightweight paperback for very young readers, originally published in 1927, set in a Swiss boarding school run by a bunch of devoted Catholics, and the third installment in a series of sixty-two similar novels. Wow. It was exactly like what you are imagining. My friend lent me this book promising a very light and wholesome read – and a window into her childhood. She devoured these as a kid while the rest of us were reading our way through Goosebumps  and The Babysitter’s Club.


Yeah. There isn’t much to say about this book, except that is was definitely very sweet and wholesome and light and easy to read. There was a kidnapping (spoilers), but my friend assures me that this is a standard plot device for the author: there is either a kidnapping, a natural disaster or a student lost in the Alps in any given book in this series.

The one exceptional thing about this book was, like A Vicarage Family, the Chalet School reminded me of what it felt like to be a child who is mocked, patronised or unfairly treated by a regular adult – not an evil adult, just an adult who is not very thoughtful. It was a good reminder of how kids can see the world, and a reminder to not be a jerk to young people.

Rachel Held Evans: ‘A Year of Biblical Womanhood’

‘A Year of Biblical Womanhood’ was another book out of the borrowed pile, and another non-fiction one. After one of many chats about being both a woman and a Christian, a friend of mine suggested reading Rachel Held Evans for a perspective on the issue, so (eventually) off I went.

I enjoyed this book so much.The premise was fascinating – one woman living out the female-specific commands in the bible as literally as possible for a year. The writing was engaging and her actual experiences were at turns profound and hilarious.


I appreciated Rachel’s methodology. Firstly, rather than tackling all commandments all at once for 365 days, she broke them down into twelve categories and lived them out month at a time: this sounded wise not just for her sanity, but also for helping me to process it all.

Secondly, she included many interviews and reflections from women who think quite differently to her: I didn’t personally agree with all of her interpretation as she reflected on ‘biblical womanhood’ – nor those of everyone she interviewed – but I liked the way these different voices made room for me to both disagree with her and stay engaged in her story.

Thirdly, between chapters she included twelve short devotions on women in the bible, which was a nice counterpoint to the laws and exhortations she was living out. I’m very glad she included these reflections, so we could hear the stories of women in the bible among the story of Rachel’s year.

The highest point was her month of living out Proverbs 31, celebrating ‘women of valour’. I think I will come back to that idea again and again. It is a marvelous thing to  celebrate the valour of other women.

The another high point for me was this succinct explanation of the care and thoughtfulness we need to put into interpreting the bible:

For those of us who count the Bible as sacred, interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose but how to pick and choose. We are all selective. We all wrestle with how to interpret and apply the bible to our lives. We all go to the text looking for something and we all have the tendency to find it. So the question we have to ask ourselves is this: Are we reading with the prejudices of judgement and power, self-interest and greed?

If you are looking for Bible verses with which to support slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses to abolish slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to oppress women, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to liberate and honor women, you will find them…

…This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not, what does the text say? but what am I looking for?

Yes! I think I fist-pumped when I read this. We are always – subconsciously or intentionally – wrestling with interpretation as we read the bible. We should always be pausing to ask ‘what am I looking for’?

And at this point I really wish Rachel had gone on to talk about coming to the bible first and foremost looking to know Jesus, and his sacrificial, redemptive, far-reaching, all powerful love. We should be concerned most of all about Jesus and his love for us, before we come with any other agendas about our gender, or whatever else we are hung up on. I am convinced that focusing on him, above our own personal agendas, goes some way to helping us avoid self-interested interpretations of the text.

Sadly Rachel didn’t quite land there. But even if she didn’t say it, this is the message I have taken away from her book: the attitude we bring to interpreting the bible absolutely shapes the way we read it, and so the best attitude I can have is one that is centred more on Jesus than on myself. I know in reality that reading the bible is not as simple as that, but examining my attitude like this is definitely a start!

Noel Streatfeild: ‘A Vicarage Family’

‘A Vicarage Family’ was the second book of the year and also came out of the pile of borrowed books. I was excited to read this one. I had heard about Noel Streatfeild… from You’ve Got Mail (as I have already mentioned, this is a classic film!):

Noel Streatfeild wrote Ballet Shoes and Skating Shoes and Theatre Shoes and Dancing Shoes. I’d start with Ballet Shoes first; it’s my favorite. Although Skating Shoes is completely wonderful—but it’s out of print.

Well, this was my first ever Streatfeild book, her autobiography of her late childhood and teenage years living in a vicarage in an English village. A good start I think, to get to know the author.


The character subbing in for Noel is called Vicky, and she is fiesty. And living in Edwardian England. In a vicarage. As a middle child. None of these things are true of my childhood. At the beginning of the story her life seemed so remote and foreign and different. But as I kept reading I started recognising my own memories in her story. Vicky has countless moments of angst and anxiety around being misunderstood or unfairly treated: these opened a wellspring of memories about my own worries around being unfairly punished at school or at home, or those moments where I felt caught between two versions of the truth. Those memories of sitting in my room and promising that when I was an adult I would never make those assumptions about children, never dish out that punishment without making sure I knew the full story, never use sarcasm.

Those were difficult moments as a kid. I’d forgotten those memories and Noel brought them flooding back. I am so thankful because I work with children now. ‘A Vicarage Family’ has helped to grow my empathy for these kids, it’s given me a desire to understand the details of their world a little better.

…she caught her foot and fell, spraining her ankle. The pain was excruciating.

Victoria let out a howl. Miss French opened her door. Since the beginning of the term she had been looking for an occasion to make friends with Victoria. But now she thought of nothing but the noise Victoria was making. In a voice that seemed to have ice in it, she said:

‘What is the meaning of this noise, Victoria?’

Victoria was swinging to and fro holding her ankle.

‘It’s my ankle. I think I’ve sprained it.’

Miss French’s voice was more icy than ever.

‘That may be. But a sprained ankle scarcely seems an excuse for raising your voice.’

Victoria never forgot those words. Years later in London, during the Second World War, she was in a house which the third of a stick of bombs was clearly likely to hit. Actually it just missed, but caused a lot of damage. When the dust, rubble and broken glass had settled Victoria heard herself say quietly: ‘You may nearly have been killed by a bomb, Victoria, but that hardly seems an excuse for raising your voice.’