Stories of Life at Sydney Cove by Susan E Boyer (Birrong Books) PB RRP
Reviewed by Dianne Bates
Susan Boyer, who has a passion for Australian colonial history, is the author of more than twenty non-fiction books including Across Great Divides. This current title is a young reader edition of that book. It is evident that Boyer has thoroughly researched her material: all of the white people in the stories that make up this book for children aged 9 to 13 years really lived at Sydney Cove at the time of the first settlement.
The structure of the beginning of this book is different to most books for children insofar as the first five chapters that follow an explanation of the historical background of the book, focus on different people who were part of the First Fleet. Chapter One, for instance, tells the 1787 story of 13-year-old John Hudson, an orphan, who having been in the workhouse and then worked as a chimney sweep, was accused of burglary and sent to the new colony on board the ship Friendship. In May of that year there's another 13-year-old, Elizabeth Hayward on board Lady Penryhn for stealing from her factory employer: she meets Isabella Rawson twice her age whose baby dies on board.
When Captain Phillips and his men land at Botany Bay there is a clear and involving account of the interchange between natives and the First Fleeters. One really emphathises with the natives' total astonishment at encountering white people for the first time. Further on, in Sydney Cover (now Circular Quay) there's a clear and identifiable account by Lieutenant Ralph Clarke (told partly by the book's author and partly in Clarke's own words) of the man's impressions of the new, alien country. Here is a soldier who volunteered for the journey but who now wishes he hadn't. 'And so,' writes Boyer, 'with such a mixed collection of people, each with their own plans, personalities and attitudes, Governor Phillip had to build a colony.'
As work progresses building the new settlement, the author uses maps and original material to inform the reader. Occasionally, too, the book has maps and black and white illustrations, the sources of which are shown in the back pages. The text has frequent original material interspersed in, but integral to the narration.
Boyer's tale is interesting, absorbing and well told; characters introduced in the early chapters come into the later story of the settlement's development. The book finishes when Governor Phillip sets off in December 1792 on board Atlantic with the natives Bennelong and Yemerawane bound for England. What on earth would the natives think of English people and their houses, he wonders.
In the later pages, as well as a list of British in Stories of Life at Sydney Cover (and their occupations and interest and adventures) there is also a list of Aboriginal people in the book. This is a comprehensive and fascinating piece of research and the author is to be congratulated on her achievement.