The Coves

The Coves


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Lindsay's Review

When Australian bushrangers ruled San Francisco

A masterpiece of young-adult historical fiction by a Western Australian author. The utterly gripping tale of Sam, a 19th-century Western Australian teenager caught in the convict turmoils of a struggling penal nation. Orphaned young and shipped to Van Diemen’s colony, he escapes, stows away, and travels to the far distant shores of America in search of his long-lost mother. With only a Judge’s description of his mother’s flaming red hair and her life as a Molly, to survive the brutal life of the Californian gold rush town Sam joins an enclave of ex-Botany Bay convicts who control the Australian quarter of San Fransisco called Sydney-town. To survive the birth pangs of that shanty Wild West city controlled by different factions of nationalities, he must become skilled in the ways of lawlessness, while keeping his focus on his continued search for his Ma. With a dingo as his side kick, a Molly as his friend, and longing for a Cantonese slave girl, his new family help him to thrive. With tensions heightening towards a show down between the new American State and the laconic freedom-loving Australians, what will he do if he finds his mother? How can he ever return to boyhood!

David Whish-Wilson's novel has similarities with a Robert Louis Stevenson style of youthful piratic adventure on the high seas. It has a clear narrative infused with historical details that bring the grimy, dark and dangerous world of the 19th century to life. The juxtaposition of the two new worlds of Australia and America reveals the startling differences between the historical foundations of both nations, and sheds light on the influences of their national identities. The story cleverly weaves together the histories of and influences on the Gold Rush towns that affected both America and Australia. With the focus of the story set in California, as Sam reflects on his early life on the Swan River living beside the Aboriginal people, he shows us a vision of a nascent Perth and state, using landmarks still relevant today. He brings Australia, and particularly Western Australia, out from the shadows of the 19th century world history, and reveals the unrecognized role that Australians have played, not always and necessarily ethical, in other parts of the world.

The book is brimming with wonderfully convincing but larger-than-life characters, and is alive with the sound and scent, colour and vigour of the times. Friendships help Sam to explore the philosophy of survival, loyalty and love in a tough world. His interaction with the Molly, Sarah, and the slave girl Ai, upper crust ladies and inn keepers, shows the male-dominated brutality of the early New World, where the women and children were prizes or work horses. The quintessential Australian characteristics of mateship- loyalty, anti-authoritarian spirit, and ingenuity in the face of calamity-make this a book a must-read for young Western Australians. It would be good to read alongside your teenager, as it raises questions about past social differences. It could provide a useful starting point for discussions that can be awkward to raise with a young person.

Publishers Reviews

San Francisco, 1849. The hills are swarming with desperate men from all over the world, come to seek their fortune in the grip of yellow fever.

San Francisco, 1849. The hills are swarming with desperate men from all over the world, come to seek their fortune in the grip of yellow fever. In their wake come the opportunists, not least of whom are the Australians, many of them former convicts who are quick to seize control in a lawless world. This group of Australians, headed by the standover man Thomas Keane, are known as The Coves.

Enter twelve-year-old Samuel Bellamy, formerly of the Swan River Colony, lately of Van Dieman's Land, in search of his mother who, last he heard, has gone to join the molly-houses in California.

Sydney-town, San Francisco, is a world of opportunism, loyalty and violent betrayal, and Samuel must learn to be a man if he is to survive.