Sunday, July 5, 2015

1854 Do You Dare? Eureka Boys - P. Matthews

It’s 1854 on the Ballarat goldfields where life is tough. Young Henry’s daily routine rarely changes. Mostly it’s working the gold-washing cradle on his father’s mining claim on the Gravel Pits Lead. It’s a boring and back-breaking grind, pouring water over the shovelfuls of sandy dirt, rocking it up and down before carefully scrutinising every square inch. Henry’s father is ever-hopeful that each new day will be the one they strike gold. Even Henry’s seven-year-old sister, Eliza, is put to work, panning for gold in a shallow tin dish. When their new-born baby brother succumbs to one of the illnesses rampant on the goldfields, then a week later, their mother, Henry can’t imagine how things could get worse. Bullying and corruption is rife amongst the trappers, the police troopers who collect the exorbitant thirty shillings a month for the miners’ licences, and who make life for the miners even harder than it already is. There seems to be little the miners can do about it without even the right to vote. Henry’s father, bound up in grief and the job of keeping his small family alive, pays him scant attention, and when he does, targets Henry with his anger. So it is not surprising that Henry finds himself enjoying the warm embrace of the family of his new Irish friend, Frank. When this extends to becoming involved with ‘Happy Jack’ and the rebel diggers responsible for burning down the Eureka Hotel, Henry is torn. Obey his father, return to the diggings and never see Frank again, or join the uprising against the traps and the rebellion?

Part of the Do You Dare series, Eureka Boys is an excellent inclusion on the history of the Eureka Stockade and Ballarat gold rush. Penny Matthews has crafted an engaging, well-researched, page-turning story the target audience will love. This period of Australian history comes alive as Henry’s story unfolds and invites the reader onto the diggings and into the harshness of life in 1854 Ballarat. Matthews does not skimp on authentic detail but the brutality of the times is mitigated by humour and the warmth of the main protagonists, Henry, Frank and Happy Jack. The prose is lively and captivating positioning the reader for an evocative response to the powerful story arc. Insightful sections at the back of the book offer a resource to the reader about Eureka, the history of the times, other events that occurred in 1854 and glossary of terms. A thoroughly enjoyable and informative read.

Puffin, 2015

(A version of this review - incorrectly attributed to Patricia Halsall -  appears in Magpies Vol 30, Issue 2, May 2015)

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