Tessa Duder turns 83 this year and counts generations of teenagers among her readers, particularly for the award-winning Alex quartet published in the late 80s and early 90s. The Sparrow is not only Duder’s first young adult novel in twenty years: it is also her first historical novel for young adults, appropriate in a year when two historical novels are finalists for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
The subject of The Sparrow is the precarious existence of convicted and transported British women in the 19th century, and the novel explores the cruelty, the injustice and horror these women endured. It is set in the political landmark year of 1840, with the arrival of the Platina from Port Nicholson. One of its passengers, Harry, clutches his secrets tight: he stares at muddy, wet, fledgling Auckland as the twenty-one gun salute crashes in his ears, wondering how on earth he’ll survive, and how long before he’s unveiled as a liar and a criminal. Because underneath Harry’s male dress and bound chest hides a sixteen-year-old female runaway from the Cascades Female Factory in Tasmania – Harriet.
Like the protagonist of Cristina Sanders’ Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant, set in 1866 and one of the Ockham finalists, Harriet is alone in a man’s world, determined to return to her native country. She is near penniless, without friends or food: she must fight prejudice, misogyny and racism, as well as the sheer elemental struggle of a newborn settlement, in her efforts to survive. Unfortunately, enemies from her past – who know more than they should – appear at every turn, determined to expose and prevent her from reaching her goal.
Told through entwined parallel stories, The Sparrow reveals the day Harriet is unjustly convicted of stealing an apple, a feat engineered by her older brother, in a scene reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. Each chapter gives a section of each story, horrifying the reader with the darkness of Newgate Prison, then the terrors of Cascades Female Factory in Van Dieman’s Land. Duder doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, shown especially when Harriet, posing as a young man, loudly fights off a night-time sexual attack.
‘You will stop that!’ I manage to shout, and am rewarded by irritable voices telling the sailor, by name of Albert, ya miserable poncy bastard, sod off, just leave the friggin’ boy alone.
This darkness in tone and content contrasts with a young adult title like Fleur Beale’s recent Faraway Girl, where time-travel connects her main character – and the book’s younger readers – with the nineteenth century. The language, structural complexity and plethora of historical detail suggest The Sparrow aims to capture an older teenage audience, and it might not hold the attention of some younger teens. This passage from the first chapter illustrates this:
It’s getting cold and this conversation unwelcome. Among the passengers who’d come aboard at Port Nicholson, all much disgusted with the mud and rain and broken promises of that settlement, was a young priest who’d assured us that eating human flesh was no longer practised. Cannibalism was a tradition associated with tribal warfare. We newcomers, he urged, must put aside our fears, and endeavour to establish good relationships with the local people.
In the author’s afterword, Duder notes that the research she undertook for a non-fiction biography of Sarah Mathew, prominent early settler in Auckland, ‘provided much of the basis for The Sparrow’. The novel is meticulously researched: the precise details of the past spring off the page, bringing alive the grubbiness and filth of the new colony, and the frictions between social classes, nobility, governor, and workers. Most of a page is dedicated to the machinations of a privy:
Above the hole the carpenters have placed boards where you put your feet to squat, and a couple of wobbly handrails to hold onto. Around it stands a screen of leafy branches cut from shrubs. Very soon I hear mothers complaining that even the older children must not use it alone; they will need to be held safely over the hole to prevent the unthinkable…
Several key characters are based on real-life people, including the captain of the Platina who helps Harriet to find her feet, and her closest friend, Tillie. The novel also features prominent historical figures: Governor William Hobson and wife Eliza, Sarah and Felton Mathew, interpreter Edward Williams. Beyond this, the people that surround Harriet in her journey are the author’s invention. Duder is alert to the conventions of the time, even when they contradict with today’s widely accepted usage. At the back of the book, she notes:
In keeping with the period in which the story is set, macrons have not been applied to te reo Māori, and the anglicised plurals of te reo Māori then in use have likewise been retained. Similarly, some words and phrases now regarded as abhorrent have been kept …
Harriet, however, is a protagonist of more palatable attitudes: she has a strong sense of injustice, and protests racism amongst the settlers. While she does have some successes, such as this encounter with the owner of the only two cows in the settlement, her fellow colonists come to regard her with suspicion.
At first he treats us with disdain, and names an outrageous price for a billy of milk, but starts to listen when I suggest it would not be hard to persuade the women of the camp to refuse to buy his milk until he charges a fixed and fair price. The milk will quickly go sour in this heat. Does he not know that he is already regarded by the women as a scoundrel, callously taking advantage of poor people in a terrible situation?
After the death of one of the children in her care, Harriet reacts with anger to the treatment of the Māori people come to grieve, and puts the roof over her head and her job at risk:
I can see Tillie’s father is about to explode, but I explode first.
‘How can we be so rude and ungrateful? I exclaim to no-one in particular. ‘These people have come to show their respect. They waited until we’d finished—’
‘Mark ‘ee, so’s to dig up the body and—’
‘Shame on you, what a vile and wicked thought!’ I cry to the woman behind me. ‘How dare you! They’ve built huts for us, brought us food—’
Harriet’s highly reactive, socially aware traits sometimes feel at odds with the milieu and social mores of her own life: she is still a woman of her time paid for domestic work. Creating female characters who take charge of their own destiny, unrepressed by the conventions of their age, is a challenge when writing historical fiction, and even more so when the audience is teenage. Duder’s decision to have Harriet switch from appearing female and male throughout the book allows the character more liberty than she would experience as a young woman only.
In any novel set long ago, we are reliant on the historical record and a dollop of creativity to ‘re-imagine the past,’ as Duder herself observes. Authors have the exceptional task of creating a world, shaping and constructing it, using personal accounts and facts as building blocks. But often some voices are missing from the historical record, because of race, sex or class or a combination of all three. Is it incumbent on writers of historical fiction to be conscious of these voices and experiences?
The Sparrow is the story of colonists, and the voices of Māori are noticeably absent. Harriet regards Māori with curiosity and interest, but at times this reads like objectification of the exotic:
His hair is caught in a knot at the top of his head, a long piece of carved bone lies on his chest. There’s only one way to describe him: beautiful – beautiful, beyond imagining.
Other characters in the novel are also reduced to their looks or appear without depth – Harriet’s brother, responsible for her arrest and conviction as a thief, is seldom represented as anything more than sullen and lazy, while her parents are always sweet and kind.
The Sparrow is a dense, committed novel that shines its light strong on the fate of girls and women treated extremely badly in a shameful era of our history. Mistakenly convicted, housed in conditions that wouldn’t meet animal welfare standards today, Harriet perseveres. Her resilience seldom falters, and she is determined to expose the injustices that bring her to Auckland, so she can begin to build her own life. But the reader is left with the feeling that history, in this novel, is the real story, and that trumps all.