Sam Bellamy is twelve years old and yet he has survived the Boys home, watching his father killed, his mother flogged and transported to Van Diemen’s Land, and now a mutiny. He is on the trail of his mother, who was granted her ticket-of-leave after serving her sentence and is now supposedly in California.
The narrative opens with Sam on the whaler in which the mutiny has occurred. He is uncertain of his future. It is 1849 and the ringleader of the mutiny, Dempsey, intends to sail to California and cash in on the gold rush. With posters nailed on all the main streets of Sydney it seemed that every ship on the waves was heading there too. Everybody had the fever, a promise of riches and an easier life.
Unwittingly he has become a part of the Dempsey gang. Yet just upon arriving at San Francisco, Sam releases the crewman who has been tied to the wheel, forced to steer them safely to the coast. Dempsey knows this and Sam has made a powerful enemy. Dempsey –
“I know it was you that betrayed us. Let the raiders aboard. Freed the American. I advise against breaking your fast, for shortly I’ll be opening your guts”.
San Francisco is a melting pot of cultures. Men and woman flocking from all over the globe gripped with gold rush fever. There is an Australian contingent, and they are great in number. It is the leader of these men who saves Sam from Dempsey, ending Dempsey’s nascent career as a gold miner before it even begins. Sam falls under the aegis of Thomas Keane, who employs him as a scout and messenger. His job to sniff out the gold and listen for rumors.
The Australians have a good foothold but there is an American gang, The Hounds, deserters from the Mexican war, who want what the Australians have got, so the Australians are building an arsenal to defend themselves. The Australians are called, Sydney Ducks, or Sydney Coves and they routinely resort to bushranging and murder, witling down the numbers of their enemies.
Sam soon becomes trained and proficient in the ways of a pickpocket. And eventually ends up working odd jobs for Keane’s fellow cove Clement.
What surprised me about this novel and made me aware of my lack of historical knowledge, was the huge number of Australians who were part of the 1849 gold rush. It is estimated that in 1852 one quarter of San Francisco’s population was Australian. One neighborhood of the city being called Sydney-town. In the author’s note at the end of the book he comments that most of these Australians were criminals and were blamed for burning San Francisco to the ground five times. The fact that Sydney-town was always spared supporting this claim.
This is a wonderful historical novel about a young boy trying to find his mother. A herculean task, set against the backdrop of the 1849 San Francisco gold rush, peppered with historical characters and events. Most enjoyable.
David Whish-Wilson was born in Newcastle, NSW but raised in Singapore, Victoria and WA. He left Australia in 1984 to live in Europe, Africa and Asia, where he worked as a barman, actor, streetseller, labourer, exterminator, factory worker, gardener, clerk, travel agent, teacher and drug trial guinea pig.
During this time he began to publish short stories in Australia (anthologised in Pascoe Publishing's Best Fifty Stories Collection) and had a longer piece short-listed for the Vogel/Australian Literary Award.
His first novel The Summons was published in 2006 (Vintage - Random House.) His second novel Line of Sight was published by Penguin in September 2010, and was short-listed for a 2011 Ned Kelly Award (see reviews.)
The sequel to Line of Sight - Zero at the Bone was released with Penguin Australia in August 2013. David wrote the Perth book for the New South Publishing city series, which was short-listed for the 2014 WA Premier's Book Awards (see reviews). The third novel in the Frank Swann crime series, Old Scores, was released by Fremantle Press in November 2016. His historical crime novel, The Coves, was released by Fremantle Press in July 2018.
His latest novel "THE SAWDUST HOUSE" takes the reader back to the world of "THE COVES" and will be released by Fremantle Press again.