Remember in Primary School, when the theme for the term was Australian History? You learnt all about Captain Cook, convicts, bushrangers and the gold rush. If you were like me, you were fascinated by all the morbid details; death by scurvy, being gaoled for stealing bread, and the fact that teachers could dish out corporal punishment – ‘the strap’ was both terrifying and intriguing. The idea of a wooden school desk that opened from the top was tantalising, and the leather boots corsets and petticoats were even a bit princess like. Did you get an old fashioned sepia photo from a pioneer settlement tourist park? “No smiling children, no one looked happy in the olden days.”
There wasn’t much reference to indigenous history, really. Many of the ‘natives’ died of the flu (much like the allusive dinosaur) and they carried spears, boomerangs and women weren’t allowed to play the Didge. Oh, and there was the painting lesson where you broke up rocks and mixed them with water to create a new graffiti tool. And during play-lunch, amateur pyros would try to start fires by rubbing sticks together; delighted and nervous squeals from the girls ensued.
Despite the gaps, I loved Australian history then. I still do. And so I loved this book.
The Secret Fate of Mary Watson is a compelling tale. Fiction mixed with historical events, mystery underpinned by actual journal entries from the late 1800s.
In 1879, 19-year old Mary Oxnam fled her family home in Queensland. She was plain, penniless and alone, but had determination, independence and a feminist wit I didn’t expect to come across for the era.
Mary finds a job as a pianist in a Cooktown brothel, while her intelligence and stealth land her a lucrative, but dangerous, side-job as a spy. Embroiled in smuggling, espionage and a dirty trade for her day job, the tale is gritty and thrilling, and far from you typical history lesson.
All the characters Mary encounters are shady: it’s clear that she’s in danger – no matter who she’s siding with – but she knows it, which makes her both frustratingly risk taking, and remarkably brave.
She marries a brute for convenience and soon moves to Lizard Island; remote and crawling with all sorts of enemies – both natural and human.
Her time on the island is intense and suspenseful. Her living conditions are squalid. Her marriage is quite revolting. Her emotions are palpable and the rugged desolate environment is described as both threatening and beautiful.
Based on actual journal entries written by our heroine, the author has presented her own interpretation of Mary’s events which are speculative while compelling, heart wrenching and bleak.
An amazing and creative insight into a little known aspect of our history.
In short: typically Australian, bleak and beautiful.