Bushranger Book Club, September 2021

It has been a while since a dedicated post reviewing media on A Guide to Australian Bushranging, but what better time than the present to look at some of the recent releases and currently available literature pertaining to this broad field of interest?

Tommy Bell – Bushranger Boy, books 1-3 by Jane Smith

It is often said these days that getting kids to read is one of the hardest things to do as a parent, especially with younger children. With the Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy series by Jane Smith, we have books about bushranging that are a perfect balance of fun and education for primary school aged readers. All too often books on the subject for this demographic are very dry and uninspiring, and at times wildly inaccurate or oversimplified, but not so with this imaginative series that uses a splash of magic to transport the reader to key parts of bushranger history. Tommy Bell’s magical cabbage-tree hat is just the trick to allow kids to have a relatable character to follow through the olden days.

Book one is Shoot-out at the Rock, and sees Tommy transported back in time for an encounter with Captain Thunderbolt. After Tommy Bell falls behind in his history lessons and steals a donut from a classmate, he is sent to stay with his grandparents near Uralla. Here he discovers the magical cabbage-tree hat inside Thunderbolt Rock that transports him back in time to when Captain Thunderbolt and Fred Britten had a chase and gunfight with the police there. The experience gives Tommy a bit of perspective on his own troublesome behaviour, and stokes a passion for history and bushrangers.

This book starts the series off strong, and sets up the character of Tommy Bell, as well as his family and his horse Combo, very effectively. Young readers will undoubtedly get a kick out of this exciting tale of highway robbery and a dramatic clash with police, and gain a history lesson and a moral lesson at the same time.

Following the narrative is a guide to the history that the story is based on, and a mock Q &A with Thunderbolt. The inclusion of the non-fiction section sets this up as an educational text as much as an entertainment for young readers, and these are features of the subsequent books as well.

Book two, The Horse Thief, sees Tommy becoming mixed up in the early exploits of Frank Christie, alias Gardiner. The Gardiner narrative is interspersed with Tommy travelling to and from a riding competition with his parents and his horse Combo. We are also introduced to Tommy’s new classmate named Francis, who seems to want to get Tommy mixed up in his mischief, setting up a point of comparison with Gardiner roping his friends into horse theft.

Whereas book one’s strength was in its simple story and fairly tame depiction of bushranging, thanks largely to Thunderbolt being a far more “family-friendly” outlaw, book two is a bit more ambiguous. Thematically, it still hovers around the morals of the bushrangers (or lack thereof), and how sometimes it isn’t so straightforward as seeing criminals as inherently evil or nasty, and everyone else as good and pleasant. Frank Gardiner is a scary horse thief who Tommy is clearly afraid of, but as villainous as he is the squatter, William Lockhart Morton, doesn’t seem any better, and even Tommy Bell finds it hard to justify the sorts of punishments that the criminals are subjected to. That the book doesn’t talk down to its readership and make everything clear-cut and black and white is one of the things that elevates it over the usual fare that children are given.

Book three is The Gold Escort Gang, and acts as a direct follow up to its predecessor by exploring the infamous Eugowra Rocks heist. It runs the story of Gardiner assembling his heist crew parallel to Tommy’s schoolmate Francis, from the previous installment, trying to rope him into stealing the rich kid’s bike with his “gang”. As with the prior books, the comparison between past and present is key to making the stories relatable, and therefore informative.

While most children’s books these days try to incorporate some form of gross out gag or toilet humour, these books are thankfully a little more high-brow, with the closest to this bring Tommy encountering Gardiner and Johnny Gilbert skinny dipping in a lake, then having to ride away naked when they couldn’t get dressed in time to evade the police who come up on them unexpectedly. This should hopefully endear the books a bit more to parents who struggle to find books for primary aged readers that aren’t about poo, bums, farts or other bodily fluids and functions.

In this tale, Tommy is right in the thick of the action during the robbery, and attention shifts away from Gardiner to Ben Hall, who is portrayed sympathetically. Again, the moral of the story is more nuanced than what you would normally find in a children’s book; Tommy uses his experience with Gardiner and Hall to reflect on his relationship with Francis in the present and comes to the conclusion that there is a compromise to be made between doing the right thing and being someone’s friend.

All three books feature bold, fun illustrations that are very stylised but suit the vibe of the text perfectly. The only criticism to be made on that front is that the costumes and such as illustrated tend to be based on American Westerns rather than the very distinct Australian style of the era. Nonetheless, it adds a little something to spice up the reading experience.

The first four Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy books are available in a boxed set from Big Sky Publishing (book four, Outback Adventure, featuring Harry Readford, alias Captain Starlight), and form a really neat set to get kids interested in bushrangers. From an educational standpoint, as much as a parental one, it is very hard to go part these books. If you have kids, or know someone who does, then these cone highly recommended.

Books four to six will be reviewed in a future Book Club.

If you would like to purchase the Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy books, you can find them online here.

In the Company of Madness by R.B.R. Verhagen

Few recent novels on the subject of Australia’s history focus on the light side, and In the Company of Madness is no exception. This is an intertwining narrative that takes the disparate strands of the lives of a bushranger, a priest and a soldier and braids them into a poetic, tragic and powerful human story about the foundations of Van Diemen’s Land and the human suffering that they were built on. What’s more, this is based on real people and events, and portrays them faithfully and in detail, which seems like more of a novelty than it should. Specifically, In the Company of Madness is about Alexander Pearce, Rev. Philip Connolly, Lt. John Cuthbertson and all their struggles in the fledgling southern colony.

Some bushranger enthusiasts will go into this book with at least a superficial knowledge of Pearce and his reputation as a cannibal; a fact that is handled artfully. They may also be familiar with the brutality of Macquarie Harbour, but Verhagen makes the suffering all the more savage by framing it through the lived experiences of convicts as well as through the tyranny of the overseers. The feeling of dread and hopelessness is palpable as one reads the artfully constructed prose. As for the murder and cannibalism, that is well handled as well, leaving most of the horror to the reader’s imagination, rather than revelling in the gruesome or gory.

The narratives chop and change throughout the book from chapter to chapter, while the whole is divided into three acts, a prologue and an epilogue. The text itself is rich and dense, and requires the reader to really take in what is being conveyed. This is not a book to be flicked through mindlessly while waiting at the airport, it demands the reader’s full attention.

Verhagen has evidently done diligent research in preparation for this book, and as a result his characters are not only authentic, but engaging. Enthusiasts of Tasmanian history will be pleased to see many important figures popping up such as Robert Knopwood and Lieutenant Governors Sorell and Arthur, as well as detailed descriptions of key environs such as Macquarie Harbour and Hobart Town. This interpretation of Van Diemen’s Land is alive and immersive, riddled with vice and full of people from all walks of life tumbled together in a barely functional penal colony.

It should come as no surprise that this is not a book for the faint-hearted as it contains a considerable amount of adult material. In the hands of a lesser writer this would come across as exploitative or merely titillation, but Verhagen uses the sordid side of the tales he is telling to highlight core truths about the human condition and the respective struggles faced by each core character. Pearce struggles against the brutal oppression and tyranny that he is subjected to, his humanity reduced to a crude approximation somewhere a little above a wild animal; Cuthbertson’s hubris and bigotry allows him to dehumanise those in his charge and torture them to death if only to scare the rest into compliance; Connolly struggles with his human urges and his devotion to Catholicism that requires their suppression. Readers should be aware that some of these moments are very confronting indeed and some may go so far as to find them distressing, so discretion is advised. For those who persevere with the book, it will be a rewarding and moving experience.

To supplement his book, Verhagen has curated a page of his website with maps, music and imagery to help round out the experience, which you can find here.

If you would like to procure a copy of In the Company of Madness, there is only very limited stock left, but can be purchased online here.


A special thanks to Jane Smith for providing copies of the Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy books for this review.

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