The name John Dunn is one that has been immortalised in songs, stories and film yet his story is one that very few people have heard. The historical fiction approach applied by Kerry Medway in Teenage Bushranger enables us to see the junior member of the Hall Gang in a unique way that leads us to sympathise with the young renegade.
Teenage Bushranger, now in its third edition, is written from the perspective of Dunn as he awaits his execution for murder. Throughout he reflects on his notorious career as well as his early life, often ruminating on what was wasted by pursuing bushranging. Dunn comes across as youthful, exuberant and penitent for his crimes but most importantly he is relatable. This is a Dunn that is fallible and suffering from the folly of youth, struggling to come to terms with his actions. To see his world through his own eyes brings it all alive from racing horses to being twitterpated over Peggy Monks or even the thrill of robbing a mail coach. Dunn’s discovery of his faith in his last days shows a young man grappling with seeking forgiveness while wondering if he really could be forgiven for his awful crimes. When you finish the book you leave feeling more understanding of how easily someone can end up on a very bad path when they have a lack of positive guidance and how it is that so many condemned men throw themselves into religion as they face the ultimate punishment. Medway’s Dunn is a superb realisation of a historical character who is well rounded and human.
Another strength of the book is in its portrayal of Ben Hall and John Gilbert. You truly get the sense that as Medway was writing he had an intimate understanding of the personalities of these two men that went beyond merely their acts as stamped into the history books. Gilbert is a skirt-chasing adrenaline junkie who is also extremely worldly and skilled in many fields. Hall on the other hand is aloof and driven by a need to survive as much as by his anger, which often explodes, yet can find moments of jubilation where he’s compelled to playfully bounce a little boy on his knee during a raid. It is easy to see how these men might seem alluring to a young tearaway like Dunn.
A key factor of this book, however, is an emphasis on Christianity. This on the surface may seem a deterrent to some readers who could consider it “preachy” but it never comes across as anything other than a) contextually appropriate; and b) an extra layer of meaning to the journey of the protagonist. This is not a sermon per se, but it does draw heavily upon Bible verses to illustrate the path to redemption that Dunn would have taken in prison. This provides a very interesting insight into how faith manifests, especially for those unaccustomed to religious belief or practice. It must be remembered that religion in the 19th century was extremely important to attitudes and everyday life, a fact that is hard to imagine in these secular times. There are some parts of the book that follow the narrative that are of a heavily religious bent that act as a Q&A for people curious about the beliefs of Christians, but these are optional to read if they aren’t your cup of tea.
Where the text gets a little shaky is where a number of oral traditions work their way in (for example the Clarke brothers assisting in the failed Araluen robbery or Ben Hall and Billy Dargin being friends). However, these do work in context as many of these instances can be attributable to the unreliability of the narrator, the root cause of such misinformation in the first place. This does not detract from the rest of Medway’s fantastic research. Really, it’s so minor as to barely rate a mention but bushranger enthusiasts can be very pedantic.
Kerry Medway has crafted a breezy, fun and engaging account of John Dunn’s life that is empathetic and authentic. It doesn’t shy away from Dunn’s criminality, in fact it uses it to support his redemption story. This is a version of the story that will appeal to readers across a broad spectrum of ages, though is probably better suited to mature readers, and provides an intriguing and sensitive insight into one of the handful of people ever declared an outlaw in Australian history.
If you would like to purchase your own copy of Teenage Bushranger, you can do so from this link.
For more info on Kerry Medway, including his background and upcoming events go to https://www.kerrymedway.org/
A big thank you to Kerry Medway for providing me with his excellent books to review.