For really, really good Australian young adult (and middle-grade) historical fiction, Jackie French has always been a winner - just look at titles such as Somewhere Around the Corner, The Night they Stormed Eureka, and her recent A Waltz for Matilda. With Nanberry: Black Brother White she delivers an excellent fictionalised account of the First Fleet’s settlement at Sydney Cove, spanning the years 1788 to 1823, and using real historical figures to do so. Nanberry is the young indigenous boy who grew up half-English, half-Aboriginal, adopted by the Chief Surgeon John White when Nanberry’s entire people were killed by an outbreak of smallpox. French gives us such a rich view of the colony and its everyday workings, weaving them into the story effortlessly and without the dreaded information “dump”. She also doesn't gloss over the nasty parts of first fleet colonial life, such as the treatment and plight of Aboriginals, the terrible treatment of women in the colony, the drunkenness and violence of both soldiers and convicts (they are the real ‘savages’ in this story), malnutrition and the ‘tyranny of distance’. All of the characters are well drawn, with distinct voices, and French offers two strong female characters in Rachel and Maria. Nanberry: Black Brother White is a powerful novel; it would fit excellently into the Australian schools curriculum but it will also satisfy any reader from 11 up, including grown-ups.
This review originally appeared in Bookseller+Publisher magazine.