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My Australian Story: Escape from Cockatoo Island by Yvette Poshoglian

Title: My Australian Story: Escape from Cockatoo Island

A sandstone window around the blue ocean. Escape from Cockatoo Island by Yvette Poshoglian

Author: Yvette Poshoglian

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Omnibus/Scholastic

Published: 2nd January 2021

Format: Paperback

Pages: 185

Price: $17.99

Synopsis: It is 1879 and life in the Biloela Industrial School is tough for eleven-year-old orphan, Olivia Markham. Her windswept days are filled with sewing, washing, aimless roaming, avoiding the girls from the Reformatory School, and hoping to be apprenticed by the colony. Sydney is rapidly growing and modernising, but Olivia can only imagine what life is like beyond the shores of Cockatoo Island. She dreams of freedom, friendship and, above all, family. Can she ever escape?

~*~

Orphaned Olivia Markham lives at the Biloela Industrial School on Cockatoo Island just off the coast of Sydney. Here, she is meant to be learning how to sew, wash, and how to care for a home so she can gain employment. Yet Olivia’s passion is in writing and learning, and she longs for more than what she has, whilst avoiding the reformatory girls during lessons with the teacher, Miss Godfrey, who takes a liking to Olivia and is determined to help her. Olivia dreams of freedom, friendship, and a loving family – but in a world that seems as though it is constantly against her, can she find these things and live a life she has been dreaming of?

Olivia’s story is touching, and gives children – well, readers of all ages really, what life was like for someone like Olivia, and the struggles she faced, and the idea that her hopes and dreams would have been likely to remain just that – until a chance meeting with Miss Jefferis opened doors for her. I loved the diary entry-form as it allowed Olivia’s voice to shine through. I loved being able to see her world through her eyes – dismal and depressing as it was, it still allowed us to enter her world in a deeper and greatly effective way and gave me as a reader great insight into her character. This is an interesting literary device, and can be used very effectively sometimes, as it is here, because we get a good story, and Olivia tells readers everything that they need to know about her world and her feelings.

I also liked that this book introduced me to some history that I hadn’t heard of. The Biloela School on Cockatoo Island is a part of history that I had not known about – and it is just one of the many stories in history that has been given life through fiction, to give those who lived through it a voice, and show that there are still so many stories and events that we may not know anything or know much about. That is where novels like this come in, because using the fictional characters in the historical setting give life to the history and allow it to come to life so people can discover it.

The story didn’t shy away from how hard or brutal it was for the girls on Cockatoo Island – their sleeping conditions, their health care, such as it was, their clothing, what they were taught, how they were taught, and the harsh words often doled out to them. The girls could be told they were hopeless cases, that they’d never find work. That their lives would never change, and there was always a sense that things would never get better. But for Olivia, this was coupled with the hope that she would find a family. Find a new life where she was valued. This is what drove the novel and kept me reading, but I also love Yvette’s work.

It is a brilliant story by Yvette Poshoglian, and I loved seeing the breadth of what she can write about – from Ella and Olivia to Escape from Cockatoo Island. It is a great middle grade novel that can be read alone or in conjunction with a history or social studies unit. It is a fascinating read, and one I hope people find and learn something from about how young girls used to be treated in colonial times if they were on Cockatoo Island.

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