06 April 2009

Martha's Journey

by Tracey Hawkins

New Frontier Publishing. Junior Fiction, Australian. Paperback rrp $14.95

Martha Winstanley was only 12 years old when, in 1880, she was sent away from her home in St Helens, England to live with an Aunt in Australia. Someone she had never even met. Martha’s father felt there were more opportunities for a better life in Australia and forced his young daughter to leave her mother and loving extended family behind to travel the long sea voyage alone.

This is a true story as author Tracey Hawkins is Martha’s great-great-granddaughter. Inspired by the gift of a family heirloom, Martha’s original sea-chest, Tracey began the family tree research which ultimately led to the book, Martha’s Journey.

And what a fascinating journey it is. She makes new friends – Owens the sailor who always looks out for her, Mrs Wilby, who was once the cake baking opponent of her grandmother at the local fair and Sarah, a girl her age traveling with her mother. She survives homesickness, seasickness and the shipboard Matron.

In the beginning, Martha is unsure and afraid. As the voyage progresses her natural problem solving ability and compassionate nature sees her develop into a confident and capable girl. She is still fearful of what lies ahead when the ship reaches shore, but she is ready for what the journey’s end will bring.

I am not an avid reader of Australian history, fiction or non-fiction. Nor did I expect a story about a long sea trip to hold my attention. I was wonderfully surprised. This is a raw emotional piece of storytelling. The reader cannot help but experience every pitch of the boat and every step Martha takes. I cried in the middle of the coffee shop and I had to explain why I was laughing on the schoolyard steps. Martha is a character as large as the ocean she sails on.

Martha’s Journey is carefully researched, rich with authentic detail about the traveling conditions, day to day domestic tasks and social customs of the times. It’s an excellent way to learn Australian history. Put down the text book and read this!

I hope there is a sequel. I want to know how Martha faired on the streets of early Sydney. There are hints the Aunt has a possible mental illness so I am sure there are more trials and challenges ahead. Recommended for reading for enjoyment or as an Australian History resource.

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