|Oct/Nov 2017 Reviews & Interviews|
Allen & Unwin. 2017. 314 pp.
ISBN 978 1 76029 547 9.
AND I DO HEREBY FURTHER PROCLAIM that any person who may apprehend Bridget Crack (5ft. 3in. light brown hair, green eyes, 21 years of age arrived per Faith, native place Suffolk, absconded from Black Marsh, October 7, 1826) having absented herself from her usual place of residence and lately suspected to be in the company of the before named Offender, will immediately receive from the Government the sum of Fifty Guineas...
Were there ever female bushrangers in Tasmania? Only one is recorded, and she was an aboriginal woman known as "Black Mary." Like Bridget Crack, she ran away from life as a servant to a Tasmanian settler and became the consort of a notorious bushranger.
As an aboriginal woman she probably was more bush-wise than Bridget, who becomes desperately lost in the unforgiving Tasmanian wilderness. In this book, the land is as vividly present as Bridget herself. Bridget is first assigned as a servant to Captain Marshall, who lives in a large house in the relatively new settlement of Hobart. Marshall, as we see him in various chapters throughout the book, is an ineffectual, confused, and gentle character who finds himself unexpectedly curious about Bridget. His wife, however, takes a dislike to her, and when Bridged responds violently to provocation from another servant, she has her arrested for "insolent and disorderly behavior."
Bridget is next assigned to a man who has impregnated his last female servant. She refuses to work properly for him and is subsequently sent to work on a settler's farm in the remote interior of Tasmania. Getting there, "They travelled a long time through open woodland, past a cottage that sat alone a few yards back from the track. About half a mile after that the track led into dark forest. In the cart's wake darkness and trees closed off the wood behind her."
Throughout the book, we see life through Bridget's eyes and understand her experiences in this strange new country where convicts and settlers are thrown together in a fledgling society far from their English homeland. And from the moment she runs away from her last assignment, she is a lone woman, not only endangered by every man she meets but also lost in harsh bushland, starving and exposed to the intemperate weather.
Rachel Leary knows the Tasmanian wilderness well, and she writes superbly of its harshness, its strangeness and its beauty. For Bridget, escape becomes "Days chucked on top of days—a pile of time, everything made of walking. Wood, dirt, sky and water." Rain is "a curtain of water dropped over the world." And even when she is rescued by Matt Sheedy, another escaped convict, who has taken to armed robbery in order to survive, she has to trek on through rough country with him and his men: "she followed them along the creek through more forest where grey light permeated down into humus-y murk, black soil and wet tree trunks, no horizon. She tripped on tree roots, slipped on wet logs. Her heels were so painful that she clenched her jaw to stop herself crying. Her whole body ached."
Matt protects her from the other men, and whether she likes it or not, she becomes "his woman."
Bridget is caught in a bind. She cannot survive on her own, but she has been seen with the bushrangers so believes herself to be equally in danger of being caught and hanged. Her life with Matt and his gang is full of horrors. She watches raids on settlers, violence and murder, she meets lone settlers—'roo-hunters who get provisions for Matt and sell his stolen goods. And, at one time (although this is obliquely touched on in the book) Matt leaves her with one of these men whilse she undergoes labor and the still birth of their child.
Eventually, Bridget breaks free and returns to the environs of Hobart. She has a valuable stolen necklace Matt has given her, and she seeks help in finding a ship to take her back to England. But because she is a wanted woman, her life remains one of hiding and deception, and she is forced to thieve and intimidate people in order to survive.
Leary's bushrangers are rough, angry, often deranged but sometimes pathetic and sympathetic men. The settlers are men and women intent on establishing themselves, in many different ways, in this strange land. The aborigines are sometimes seen by them as helpers but mostly as a threat. And Bridget herself is stubborn, independent, and tough but also a lost, vulnerable woman whose life we briefly share.
Altogether, this is a compelling and fascinating story about people who, one way or another, hoped to find new and free lives in a new country.