It’s hard to keep track of just how many books Jackie French has published. This year alone she will have published five books and according to her website, her total publications number around two hundred. French describes herself as an “Australian author, ecologist, historian, dyslexic and honourary wombat.” It’s not hard to see why generations of young Australian readers have fallen in love with her work and followed her publications into their adolescence and adulthood.
One of her newest books, The Schoolmaster’s Daughter might be aimed at middle grade readers, but its appeal is much wider. Beginning with a terrifying shipwreck, it tells the story of Hannah Gilbert who is the daughter of the newly appointed schoolmaster at Port Harris. Alongside her mother, younger brother, and several other passengers who are washed ashore after their ship breaks apart during a storm, Hannah is rescued by Jamie, a Pacific Islander boy who lives on a farm near the coast.
Her father and several other of the men set off through the bush in search of the town. Jamie and his mother, Mrs Zebediah (who is white), show kindness to survivors of the wreck and feed them from their own stores while they await the return of Hannah’s father and the others. While Hannah and her mother grow to like Jamie and his mother, and promise that Jamie will be allowed to participate in schooling under the Gilbert’s tenure, they are soon to learn that there are many prejudices in this small town which are stacked against their new friends.
By setting the book in 1901, Hannah’s story is made to take place against a background of great change in Australia; and as such there are many historical and political points of interest which make their way into the plot. Hannah’s mother, for example, is a wealthy, educated woman who has married Mr Gilbert because he seems to be as open-minded as she is. She is interested in the women’s suffrage movement, and takes note of politics. Trouble ensues after the move to Port Harris however, when her husband’s attitudes are revealed to be not quite so progressive as she had thought, and she is frequently silenced when she tries to voice her opinions – particularly when those opinions are in opposition to those of the school benefactor, Mr Harris.
Hannah and her mother learn much about the treatment of the Pacific Islanders who work the sugar plantations in the area, as their friendship with Jamie opens their eyes to what is going on out of sight. The wealth and prosperity of those in the town, particularly that of Mr Harris, comes at the expense of human lives. Hannah learns that he keeps Pacific Islanders as indentured labourers, and punishes them cruelly (and sometimes fatally) if they attempt to escape.
For some readers, this may be their first introduction to the history of Australia’s treatment of Pacific Islanders, and to the practice of ‘blackbirding’, where men were forced or tricked into coming to work on plantations in Queensland under contracts that entitled them to just six pounds a year at a fixed rate for forty years. This began some time around the 1860s. When the Pacific Island Labourers Act of 1901 came into effect, some 10 000 Pacific Islanders were deported.
Hannah’s understanding of race has largely been related to her grandparents’ use of Aboriginal labourers on their property in New South Wales, and she is stunned and horrified to see the prejudices levied against Jamie and his mother by the people in the town. Her horror is compounded when she witnesses a Pacific Islander being whipped for trying to escape the Harris plantation. Her naivety certainly belies her privilege, but in her coming to understand greater truths about the world – that it is not necessarily a fair place if you are not white and not male – make a great introduction to reading official histories critically. This has often been a hallmark of Jackie French’s writing for children and adults.
A readable, thought provoking and highly enjoyable book, The Schoolmaster’s Daughter is a treat for French fans old and new.