Saturday 27 July 2013

The River Charm

The River Charm by Belinda Murrell (Random House Australia Children’s)
PB RRP $15.95
ISBN 9781742757124
Also available as an ebook
ISBN 9781742757131
Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

As a child I loved Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians. Both were written in the 19th century and both were written with finesse and emotion, with the grittiness of life’s adventures at their cores.

Murrell’s evocative book, The River Charm, had the same captivating effect. I was transported into the lives of Murrell’s own forebears, the Atkinson’s of Oldbury, near Berrima in the southern highlands of NSW. It was a time of bushrangers, home schooling, aboriginal chiefs and life on the land. Koalas were called native bears; children caught yabbies in creeks and even had the rare privilege of attending corroborees.

The story is introduced through the eyes of 21st century Millie as she and her family holiday with great aunt Jessamine who is looking after the Oldbury estate. Jessamine is wearing a charm bracelet that holds the history of their family in the charms. One charm is a river pebble. As Jessamine tells Millie its history, Millie sees a girl dressed in white flit across the lawn, the story then timeslips to1839.

Based on Murrell’s family tales of Charlotte Atkinson, we start the story with the troubles facing the family after the death of Charlotte’s father. Her mamma is left with four children to raise. She unwisely marries a man who soon shatters their lives by his brutality and abusive behaviour.

Mamma’s strength of character shines through as she gathers her children and leaves the family home in the depths of night. Charlotte’s brother James carves his initials into the fireplace before he leaves, ‘I wanted to leave my name as a record that we belong here and Oldbury belongs to us.’ They ride their horses on a perilous journey south, through rugged bush and treacherous terrain to the safety of a shepherds’ hut on the Shoalhaven.

Towards the end of the book, Charlotte, now 15, attends her first ball in Sydney. She falls in love with the handsome Will Cummings. This is sure to fire the imagination of readers as we turn the pages to see what happens.

The River Charm would be a wonderful asset to any junior high school English program. The ties with Australian history, the drama of the narrative and the quality of the writing are testimony to this.

As with Murrell’s forebear, Charlotte Waring Atkinson, the author of the first children’s book published in Australia, Murrell shares the family genes of storytelling. A riveting read for girls aged 10 – 14.

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