Set in the mid-1800s, the latest novel from veteran Saskatchewan author Judith Silverthorne follows 14-year-old Jennie – found guilty of stealing food from a garbage can – on her voyage aboard one of the few female-only convict ships headed from the U.K. to Australia. The conditions aboard the ship are horrifying: the sleeping berths – meant for one person but used for three – are akin to “shared coffins”; many women are seasick or otherwise ill; there is a lack of decent food and water; bed bugs and rats are rampant; and sexual assault and beatings from the guards are common occurrences. Fearing for their survival, the women (and girls) join forces to not only take care of each other, but also to battle the ship, staff, and sea.
Silverthorne’s engaging writing brings a real, mostly unknown part of history to life. Despite a large cast of characters, the author paints dynamic portraits of many personalities. It is also encouraging to see such a strong piece of historical fiction told from the point of view of women and girls.
Although the depictions of racism, prostitution, and religion are accurate to the book’s setting, parents and teachers should be aware that the language reflects these subjects, and references to God are especially frequent. Given the story’s strong example of female empowerment, it is disappointing that Silverthorne undermines her characters’ independence by including scenes when the women rely on the male guards unnecessarily, and even develop love interests. Readers will hopefully be able to see past these conventional crutches and learn from the more empowering themes of resilience and strength.