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Schoolmaster’s Daughter by Jackie French

A review by Emma Streeton

January 1901. Sharks circle a stranded ship as a young girl and her family stagger from the waves. Rescued by a Pacific Islander boy named Jamie, Hannah’s family begin a new life in Port Harris, which at first seems a paradise for the schoolmaster’s daughter. But local fortunes are built on slavery and the whip.

As a firm but secret friendship between Jamie and Hannah forms, together they must fight for their rights to education and equality. As the new Federal Parliament passes the law that will force Pacific Islanders from their homes further problems arise for the pair. Can friendship and love win against prejudice and power?

“It’s because you don’t care about the color of his skin. I’m proud my daughter doesn’t feel that way, but it also makes me terrified for you too.”

Schoolmaster's daughter: a girl runs away from the reader between banks of tall plants

Historical fiction relating to the author’s family history

This novel draws on Jackie French’s own family history. The Schoolmaster’s Daughter is about education in Colonial Australia and how women once had to fight for an education. It’s about discrimination, slavery and the plight of laborers from the Pacific Islands. It celebrates the joy of reading.

“A new nation, old tragedies, the long reach of love, and the power of poetry.”

This was a fascinating historical story which immediately drew me in and did not let go until long after I turned the final page . Having not been born or schooled in Australia, my knowledge of its history is limited. This book was a valuable insight into the thoughts and culture of the era. It is both a heart-breaking and compelling read, and one that I will most definitely be sharing with my two bookworms.

French provides the reader with characters to both love and hate. She develops Hannah and Jamie beautifully. They will quickly and easily find a place in anyone’s heart. However, it is the formidable female characters Mrs Zebediah (Jamie’s mum) and Mrs Gilbert (Hannah’s mum) that left the greatest mark on me. Their experiences highlight the struggles of women living at this time. Both try to find acceptance of a different kind. We witness their resilience and their strength to stand up for what they believe in.

The verdict

I was amazed by how much I enjoyed The Schoolmaster’s Daughter, a novel aimed at middle grade years. Any expectations I did have were well and truly surpassed. It is a story I will absolutely revisit when I read it to my bookworms. I expect it to raise a lot of questions and comments from young readers about Australian federation and the way vigorous discrimination affected lives.

Nalini Haynes reviewed another Jackie French masterpiece, Cyclone.

Book details

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
ISBN: 9781460757710
ISBN-10: 1460757718
Imprint: HarperCollins Australia
Released: 2020
Format: paperback, 384 pages
Age: From 10 years
Category: juvenile fiction, Historical fiction, General

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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