Book review: The River Charm, by Belinda Murrell
Posted by Lisa Hill on June 20, 2013
Based on elements of her own family history, Murrell has constructed a ‘bush novel’ with some very contemporary themes. It begins with modern-day Millie ‘seeing’ a ghostly image of a girl in what might, or might not be, a dream. Millie is artistic, and she transforms the image into a portrait so good that it’s been entered by her teacher into a competition.
To escape her nerves about having to attend the awards ceremony, Millie travels with her mother and her sister to visit Aunt Jessamine, in the bush. This aunt turns out to be a grand raconteur of family history stories, and so the reader enters the colonial world of the Atkinson family in 1839. They live on an estate called Oldbury but there is trouble aplenty: Mamma has made an imprudent remarriage after her first husband died, and Mr Barton the stepfather is a brute who is after the assets that were left to the children in their father’s Will. Contemporary students will be amazed to read about Mamma’s struggle to protect the family at a time when women had no legal right to property or even to custody of their own children.
Teachers may need to be careful when lending this book to students for reading at home. Barton is violent, and Murrell doesn’t spare her young readers the detail. He doesn’t just attack Mamma, he also assaults Charlotte – and when they get away to start a new life without him, he comes after them in scenes that will be familiar to contemporary readers, either from the media, or sadly, from their own experience. This could be quite harrowing for some students to deal with.
I think, however, that this would make an excellent book for reading aloud and discussion. For boys in particular, it shows the injustice of sexism without being preachy and it makes a strong stand against domestic violence.
The historical detail is compelling: there are bushrangers and murderous convicts, and Murrell doesn’t shy away from detailing the impact of settlement on the local Aboriginals. Books like this bring history alive and I think many students will really enjoy reading it.
Author: Belinda Murrell
Title: The River Charm
Publisher: Random House, 2013
Review copy courtesy of Random House.
Fishpond: The River Charm