Barney and the Secret of the Whales
144pp., pbk., RRP $A12.99
It is Sydney in 1791 and Barney and Elsie have settled into their lives with the Reverend and Mrs Johnson as the fledgling colony tries to establish itself. The Third Fleet has arrived and Captain Melvill is a guest at dinner. Little does Barney know that this will change his life for Melvill is in command of the Britannia, a whaling ship and intent on sailing into southern waters to plunder its riches now their human cargo has been safely delivered.
With a promise of earning enough money to buy stock for land he hopes to be awarded in time, particularly after the Johnsons have made it clear they will return to England, Barney is enticed to join Melville’s crew for the journey south. But the dream is shattered almost the minute he steps on deck and he is dismayed to discover that this is not a one-off experience – he is indentured for three years! Assigned to being up the mast as the lookout, Barney soon spots whales and he and the reader are plunged into the gruesome details of the hunt, the capture and the destruction of a magnificent creature. Because he is the one who gave the alert of its presence, Barney holds himself responsible for its death and wonders if he can really do this for another three years.
The second in the Secret Histories series and sequel to Birrung, the Secret Friend, this is another engrossing and engaging read from master historical storyteller, Jackie French. In the notes at the back she makes it clear that distasteful as they may be to the modern reader, whaling and sealing were the two industries which sustained our nation in those early years and enabled it to diversify so that other products like wool could take over.
Written for readers the same age as Barney, it traces Barney’s story through his own voice and his discovery of himself – a landlubber rather than a seaman – with a clarity that many of his age would not have today. At its most basic level there is scope for comparing the life of a child of Barney’s era and circumstance to one of a 12 year old in Australia in the 21st century and even to track the events that have occurred to bring about the changes. What do today’s children think those of the 23rd century might think about their lives?
French has not glossed over the details of the fate of the whale but viewed through Barney’s perspective which is sympathetic to the whale’s ordeal, it is perhaps a more gentle account than the reality and may well raise issues about how humans treat animals and why they do or did. There is an excellent opportunity to compare and contrast the perception and treatment of whales in the 18th and 19th centuries and their consequences to the current situation where they are revered.
As usual, Jackie French has crafted a tale that is a perfect standalone read as well as being an opportunity to dig deeper, behind and beyond the words. Teaching notes are available.