Saturday 15 August 2015

Ben Hall

Ben Hall by Jane Smith (Big Sky Publishing)       PB RRP $14.99                                                     ISBN 9781922132697

Reviewed by J Wishart

This straightforward and informative non-fiction book is part of the Australian Bushrangers series produced by Big Sky Publishing. The information is historically accurate and is written by librarian and researcher, Jane Smith, for readers aged around 7 to 12 years. Smith says historical research can be like solving a mystery; in this book she has unearthed many facts and articles that document the life and times of Ben Hall, born in 1837.

Hall’s story starts out well. He worked as a stockman and later partnered with his brother-in-law to lease a cattle station in New South Wales. Later circumstances, however, including his wife leaving, made him unhappy and vulnerable. It was at this time he befriended Frank Gardiner, the charismatic cattle thief, who introduced Hall to a life of crime.

Hall’s escalating exploits are described, as is the support he and his gang received from a general public who initially admired the bushranger’s daring. In time this support turned to anger, leading to Hall’s eventual betrayal. Smith describes the life of a bushranger as one of ‘discomfort, violence and constant danger’. To add interest and bring this to life, the book includes ephemera such as maps, police reports and photos – including one of Hall’s revolver, which is now held in the National Library of Australia and has his initials clearly carved into the butt.

Smith has also incorporated stories within stories, such as that of Sir Frederick Pottinger, a policeman with troubles of his own, who became fixated on Hall and initiated some questionable actions against his family. These side stories effectively break up longer sections into smaller, more manageable blocks, as well as linking to the other books in the series. 

Packed in this way, with curious and ‘collectable’ facts, Ben Hall explores themes such as dissatisfaction, perception and the allure of notoriety, and offers an insight into Australian colonial history for young readers.

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