Title: The Schoolmaster’s Daughter
Author: Jackie French
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: HarperCollins Australia
Published: 18th May 2020
Synopsis: Drawing on her own family history, this is a story from Jackie French about education in Colonial Australia – and how women once had to fight for their right to it.
Sharks circle a stranded ship as a young girl and her family stagger from the waves …
Rescued by a Pacific Islander boy named Jamie, Hannah’s family begin a new life in Port Harris, which at first seems a paradise for the schoolmaster’s daughter. But local fortunes are built on slavery and the whip.
As the new Federal Parliament passes the law that will force Pacific Islanders from their homes, Hannah and her mother risk everything to run a secret school, while Hannah and Jamie must fight for their rights to education and equality. Can friendship and love win against prejudice and power?
Inspired by real events, this powerful new novel brings to life the bravery and battles of the past and gives us courage for the challenges of today.
As Australia becomes a nation, Hannah Ferndale and her family move to northern NSW town, Port Harris, where sugar cane farms are run using labour from Pacific Islanders, who are kept in slavery-like conditions. Hannah and her family are shipwrecked as they arrive at Port Harris, and are rescued Jamie, a young Pacific Islander boy, before they begin their new life, with Papa as the new schoolmaster.
Hannah longs to learn more than what she has been taught – and is ready for the next stage of her schooling. Yet as she attends school, she discovers that she is only there to help him teach the Infants kids to read and count, and write, and assist with her mother’s role in teaching music and sewing. When her mother starts teaching Hannah and Jamie secretly after he’s denied a place at the school, Hannah starts to learn more about the world than what she has experienced, as Jamie and his mother tell Hannah and her mother about their lives and the lives of the Islanders on the plantations. Their secret school is interrupted by a family emergency, and Hannah and Jamie try to continue, but she soon must return to her life teaching small children with no hope of moving forward beyond marriage.
As new laws are debated, and as Hannah has to attend to her duties as a good girl and live in a world she longs to change for the good for everyone. The country has been federated, and new laws about women’s suffrage and the status of Pacific Islanders on the farms up north. The Schoolmaster’s Daughter is based on Jackie’s own family history, which she explains in her author’s notes at the back. This makes the story so powerful – it is from the heart, and from a family, whose history and people have inspired many stories, and many novels, all of which are compelling in so many ways, and have a genuine, unique, and authentic voice that sings and shines through the words, characters and narrative.
It is an ode to a new country, grappling with their identity and their people in 1901, themes that are still relevant today in 2020, as some issues still need to be resolved – such as racism. At the same time, it is a celebration of reading, words, education and poetry – something that unites Jamie and Hannah in Eliza’s absence, and they connect them in a way that society cannot understand or fathom. The words that they shared created a world beyond what they knew and showed how they each saw exploring the world – for Jamie, it was the ability to physically explore. Hannah was happy to explore via the page – both are valid – exploring the world and travelling the world can be done in both ways. During these times of the pandemic, most of us are travelling across the world, through time and into other worlds via the page. Reading in Hannah and Jamie’s world opens this door, and the door to better lives, to lives they long for and have so far only dreamed about.
I read this book in about two days – it was one where I just had to find out what was going to happen next, and how Hannah was going to achieve her goals. Jackie French books always teach me something new, and this book was no exception. It presented a world that we may not be familiar with and issues that feel distant but are not. It is a fantastic piece of historical fiction that I will