Boy on a Wire by Jon Doust

‘I know I have to go.  It’s a family tradition.’

Jack Muir, from a small town in Western Australia, is sent off to boarding school in the early 1960s.  He doesn’t want to go.  His older brother is already there: Jack has become used to being in his shadow.  But leaving home means leaving his mother, of having to fit into a world where difference is not valued and where punishment can be brutal.  While I don’t have any personal experience of corporal punishment at school, I do remember ‘the cuts’ being administered to others at my government primary school in Tasmania.  Fear and pain are hardly great motivators for learning.  And in Jack’s boarding school, the boys also dole out punishment to each other. 

How will Jack survive?  Physically and emotionally?  

Jack is not always a likeable character: he has the arrogance of youth, and his wit is not always comfortable.  But he is also compassionate and tries to look out for some of the more vulnerable boys.

I read this book and wondered how many of the boys would survive their experiences.  I wondered, too, about what kind of adults and parents these boys would make.  Have we learned nothing since the 19th century? There’s little kindness shown to the boys in this book: even minor transgressions are punished; boys are expected to be competitive and tough.

‘There is a kind of freedom in not winning.’

I read this novel on the recommendation of a friend and will be looking to read the other two books in the series ‘One Boy’s Journey to Man’.  The journey is harrowing in parts, but the writing is superb, and I really want to read the next stage of Jack’s journey.  While I think that this novel is pitched at adults, many teenagers might take comfort from knowing that they are not alone navigating the challenging path from childhood.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Rough Justice by Matt Hilton

‘Now move aside, before somebody gets killed.’

There’s a plane crash in the Great North Woods of Maine, with two lives lost.  The three biologists who report the crash claim that they only saw the two who were killed. But later, one of them is heard talking about a female survivor. Private Investigator Tess Grey is hired to investigate. She and her partner Po Villere head off into the woods, together with their friend, gun-runner Jerome ‘Pinky’ Leclerc.  Pinky is looking to avoid some problems of his own.

What follows is an action-packed, messy series of violent encounters while Tess tries to work out what happened at the crash scene. Messy?  Well, Tess and her team are not the only people headed into the woods.  There’s another group looking for the survivor, and then there are some fairly inept bounty hunters searching for Pinky.  Who is this mysterious survivor, and why are so many people looking for her?  There are a couple of worthy villains and some likeable heroes.

There are a few unexpected twists in the story, and while I wasn’t always completely engaged, I was curious enough to keep reading.  This is the first of Matt Hilton’s novels I’ve read: I suspect it won’t be the last.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Severn House for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Cromwell’s Convicts: The Death March from Dunbar 1650 by John Sadler and Rosie Serdiville

I read this book last year, and held off publishing my review until closer to the publication date which, here in Australia, is 1 March 2020. I’ve read quite a bit of English history, but I had never really focussed on the Battle of Dunbar. and its consequences. Grim reading.

‘The dead may not be able to talk, but science can give them a voice and help us to understand more about their lives.’

The Battle of Dunbar occurred on the 3rd of September 1650 between the English Parliamentarian forces, led by Oliver Cromwell and the Scottish Covenanters led by David Leslie.  It was one of the major battles of the Third English Civil War (1649-1651) and was a decisive (albeit unlikely) victory for Cromwell.  So, what happened next?  In my previous reading about the English Civil War, I’ve focussed on the political consequences, the occupation of Scotland, the rise of Cromwell and then the Restoration.  This book deals with the Battle of Dunbar and its dreadful aftermath.

Following the battle, Cromwell marched on Edinburgh.  After he captured the capital (following the defeat of the castle), prisoners were force-marched towards England. They were force-marched to prevent any attempt at rescue and were imprisoned in Durham Cathedral.

Reportedly, there were 6,000 prisoners.  Five thousand were marched south, without food, adequate water or medical attention.  Of those who survived the seven-day march to reach Durham, as many as 1,700 died from typhus or dysentery.  Most of the rest were condemned to hard labour and exile in the new world across the Atlantic Ocean.

While this book describes the Battle of Dunbar, its primary focus is on what followed. Mr Sadler and Ms Serdiville retraced the route taken by the prisoners on this march and describe recent archaeological excavations in Durham, uncovering some of the victims.  There are also the stories of some of those transported to the colonies in America and the West Indies.

This is a dark period of British history about which I knew little.  It’s easy, almost 400 hundred years later and half a world away, to focus on actions, events, facts and consequences, on the politics and rulers. This book takes us into the details of one particular part of the Third English Civil War and reminds us of the human cost.

Recommended reading for anyone interested in 17th century British history.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Pen and Sword Military for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith              

The last ice age tells us why we need to care about a 2℃ change in temperature (from The Conversation)


Alan N Williams, UNSW; Chris Turney, UNSW; Haidee Cadd, UNSW; James Shulmeister, The University of Queensland; Michael Bird, James Cook University, and Zoë Thomas, UNSW

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that without a substantial decrease in our use of fossil fuels, we are on track for a global average increase of 2℃ in the next few decades, with extremes of between 3 to 6℃ at higher latitudes.

But 2℃ doesn’t really sound like much. Wouldn’t it just mean a few more days of summer barbeques?

While 2℃ might seem negligible, the peak of the last ice age was characterised by a 2-4 ℃ drop in global temperatures. This shows just how great an effect this seemingly small change in temperature can have on Earth.

Read more: A landmark report confirms Australia is girt by hotter, higher seas. But there’s still time to act

The last ice age

The last ice age occurred primarily as a result of changes in Earth’s orbit, and relationship to the Sun. Coolest conditions peaked 21,000 years ago. Reductions in atmospheric carbon dioxide and sea surface temperatures reinforced the cooling trend.

Globally, the most significant impact of the ice age was the formation of massive ice sheets at the poles. Ice sheets up to 4km thick blanketed much of northern Europe, Canada, northern America and northern Russia.

Today, these ice caps would displace around 250 million people and bury cities such as Detroit, Manchester, Vancouver, Hamburg, and Helsinki.

As water turned to ice, the sea-level dropped to 125 metres lower than today, exposing vast areas of land. This enlarged continent – 20% larger than Australia today – is known as “Sahul”.

In Australia, many of our major cities would have found themselves inland. Northern Australia joined to Papua New Guinea, Darwin harbour was 300km from the coast and Melburnians could have walked to northern Tasmania.

The Gulf of Carpentaria became a large, salty inland lake, largely unused by humans.

The ice age continent of Sahul. Damian O’Grady, Michael Bird

The enlarged continent caused climatic changes. Evidence from across much of Australia suggests the ice age was arid and windy – in some respects similar to conditions we have seen in recent times – and extended over approximately 200 human generations (about 6,000 years).

The monsoon, which delivers rainfall across the top third of the continent and into the arid centre, was weakened or at least moved offshore. The winter westerlies that bring rain across southern Australia also appear to have sat further south in the Southern Ocean.

With less rainfall, the arid zone was greatly expanded. Today’s semi-arid zones, many of which form an integral part of our agricultural belt, would have turned to desert. A weather report for the last ice age.

The human response

Archaeological evidence suggests two main responses from Indigenous people in the last ice age.

First, they appear to have retreated into smaller “refuges” – key areas with access to fresh water. Today, we’d all have to move to eastern NSW, Victoria, or isolated areas such as Cairns and Karratha, based on archaeological data.

Second, populations dramatically declined, perhaps by as much as 60%, as the availability of food and water decreased. This means some of the most adaptable people on the planet could not maintain their population in the face of climate change.

Today that would equate to the loss of 15 million people, or the combined populations of the largest six cities in the country (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Perth and Adelaide).

An increasingly dry inland Australia occurred 21,000 years ago, and is predicted again for the near future. Alan Williams, 2009

What fate awaits us?

Current projections, of course, suggest an increase rather than a decrease in planetary temperatures of 2˚C or more. However, in some respects, conditions in Australia later this century are likely to be similar to the last ice age, albeit via different climatic mechanisms.

Predictions suggest more frequent occurrence of hot days, as well as hotter days, and increasing variability in rainfall, with heavier falls when they occur. Cyclones may also become more intense across the top end, while increasing evaporation inland will likely see arid zones expand. The result may be similar to the last ice age, with increasing dry spells, especially inland.

Changing sea-levels (rising rather than falling) will similarly impact populations along the coastal fringe. Predictions of sea-level rise over the next century range from 19-75cm. This website – coastal risk – shows how sea-level rise will affect various parts of Australia. With 50% of our population within 7km of the coast and increasing, sea level changes associated with a global 2˚C warming will impact most Australians.

Storm damage in the northern beaches of Sydney in 2016. Sea-level rise is expected to affect the coastal fringe. Australian Associated Press

How should we respond?

People who survived the last ice age were mobile and well-adapted to arid conditions. Today’s sedentary society, dependent on optimised food production systems, arguably faces a greater challenge.

Our agricultural systems produce higher yields than the earlier food producing systems used by Aboriginal people, but are much more vulnerable to disruption. This is because they are limited in geographic spread (such as the Murray-Darling Basin and Western Australian wheat belt), and located where the impact of climate change will hit hardest.

As a result we’ll likely see large-scale failure of these systems. As the struggling Murray Darling Basin shows, we may have already exceeded the ability of our continent to supply the water that sustains us and the environment on which we depend.

We should do our utmost to ensure governments meet their commitments to the Paris climate agreement and reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050. But it would also be prudent for researchers and policymakers to identify modern day refuges in Australia, and plan the long-term sustainability of these regions in the event climate disruption cannot be reversed.

Alan N Williams, Associate Director/National Technical Leader-Aboriginal Heritage, EMM Consulting Pty Ltd, UNSW; Chris Turney, Professor of Earth Science and Climate Change, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, UNSW; Haidee Cadd, Research associate, UNSW; James Shulmeister, Professor, The University of Queensland; Michael Bird, JCU Distinguished Professor, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, James Cook University, and Zoë Thomas, ARC DECRA Fellow, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Adaminaby, NSW

My last full day in Adaminaby this trip. It’s lovely to see some green fields, some water in the dams and creeks. We’ve not ventured into the parts near the town burned by bushfire but we’ve seen burned patches.

The impact of the fires will be felt throughout this and other communities for years.

The Golden Country by Tim Watts 

‘What does it mean to be a real Aussie today? What should it mean?’

Tim Watts is a seventh generation Australian who grew up on the Darling Downs in Queensland. He is also a Labor MP — the federal member for Gellibrand, an ethnically diverse electorate in Victoria.  His children are the descendants of Hong-Kong Chinese migrants and of pre-Federation politicians who wanted to exclude people who were not white.  In this book, Mr Watts explores how we have made the transition from ‘White Australia’ and what that means in terms of national identity.

‘Australia has made enormous progress in transcending the history of racial exclusion at the heart of Federation.’

I agree that we have made progress, but I think we still have some way to go.  While 1966 marks the official end of the White Australia Policy, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the Whitlam Government established a policy of multiculturalism.  And increased immigration from Asia came even later.  But what does this mean?

In 1996, in Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech to the Australian Parliament, she said: ‘I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians.’ ‘They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.’

I’d like to say that no-one agreed with her, but that would not be accurate. However, Australia is changing.  There is much more diversity in our backgrounds now than there was fifty years ago. Those of us with essentially monocultural heritages have benefitted from this, but we’ve not embraced every aspect. Nor have our institutions reflect this diversity.

‘Today Australia is a nation of diverse classrooms but a resolutely monocultural parliament.’

There’s a gap between how we see ourselves as a community and how our institutions and symbols represent that diversity.  We’ve not come to terms with the past, and until we do, we can’t move confidently into the future.  Our institutions represent our British colonial past (with a few nods to the USA).  Sigh.

But despite the sigh, I am mostly optimistic about the future, hopeful that we can move beyond ‘us’ and ‘them’ to an inclusive ‘we’.

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in what it means (or might mean) to be Australian.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

‘Even in death the boys were trouble.’

In the early 1960s, Elwood Curtis lives with his grandmother in Jim Crow-era Florida.  He’s done well at school, and one of his teachers encourages him to enrol in the free classes at a local colored college. To get to college, Elwood  hitches a ride.  This choice is enough to have Elwood sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called The Nickel Academy.  The Nickel Academy, according to its mission statement, provide ‘physical, intellectual and moral training’ so that the boys there can become ‘honorable and honest men’.

Fine words.  Reality at the Nickel Academy is very different.   Those that run the place are corrupt, the staff abuse the boys, food and supplies are diverted elsewhere. Boys who resist disappear. Elwood wants desperately to hang on to Martin Luther King’s assertion ‘Throw us in jail and we will still love you’, but, how can he?

‘He’d started the day in his old life and ended it here.’

Elwood makes a friend in the Nickel Academy, Turner, who has a far more realistic view of how to survive.  Turner isn’t interested in Martin Luther King’s ideals; he is interested in surviving in the world he is in.

Before Elwood ended up in the Nickel Academy, he had hopes and aspirations for the future.  He had triumphed over some early setbacks, but life had possibility for him.  Could he negotiate the pitfalls, the unspoken rules and unspeakable violence of the Nickel Academy?

‘His mind was still capable of travel.’

I don’t want to write more about the story because reading it is much more important than reading about it. And while this is a work of fiction, it was inspired by the true story of the Arthur G Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida.  This school only closed its doors in 2011 (after 111 years of operation).  Graves of those who died there are still being identified.

This is an unsettling novel to read. Much of the violence is understated, which makes it worse in my view.  Not because I want to read graphic accounts of violence but because understatement enables detachment from the horror of it. Those who leave can never really escape. Read it, and weep.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith