Friday, August 28, 2009

The Night They Stormed Eureka

Jackie French’s junior fiction novel The Night They Stormed Eureka (2009) starts when Sam, a teenage girl, seeks refuge in a cemetery after having run away from her mother’s abusive boyfriend. In mental and physical pain, Sam imagines what life would have been like for the family of Percival and Elsie Puddleham, their names and dates carved on a headstone she shelters near. The depth of Sam’s longing for love and comfort reaches across the years to meet a yearning for a lost child, and she finds herself in mid-19th century Ballarat, not long before the bloody battle at the Eureka Stockade.

Now in 1854 Sam finds a warm, inviting home with the Puddlehams who run “the best little cook shop on the diggings”. But it was a time of great unrest among the miners on the diggings and Sam is swept up in the Eureka Rebellion, an iconic event on our national heritage landscape.

French’s recreation of the uprising against the British is not the Eureka of history books. She does not know if she’s changed the past or if it was another past. In Sam’s Ballarat the Eureka rebellion was really about turning Australia into a republic, rather than an uprising of miners over compulsory mining licence fees. And while there were only 120 men left in the stockade when it was eventually stormed, in The Night They Stormed Eureka this was because thousands were lured to different parts of the camp through trickery.

At the end of the story, Sam awakens in the graveyard to a concerned friend and worried teacher who, suspecting she was homeless, have been looking for her. Experiencing Eureka has changed Sam and, for the first time, she reaches out for help. What she learns at Eureka is that when you stand together, you can change the world.

Readers will be drawn into this world of treacle dumplings, pink bonnets, injustice, dreams and courage. Along with the Dickensian characters there are themes of race, equality, democracy and freedom. French states this is a story 'with historical background, not history’. Readers from 10 years and up couldn’t do better than read this novel to feel the texture of the event that almost turned us on the path to republicanism.