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A Final Reckoning: A Tale of Bush Life in Australia

G. A. Henty

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    There are a few occasions where I will read one book by a certain author, and know that he or she will become one of my favorites. John Grisham is a glaring example, as was Dan Brown, Michael Crichton, plus numerous classic authors, like Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Conrad. Back in 2016, I read Henty's The Cat of Bubastes: A Tale of Ancient Egypt, destined to be a winner, since I love cats, Ancient Egypt and historical novels. It was, and I vowed to read more books by him. I had downloaded one—this one—from Project Gutenberg—and when I realized I needed a book to update my Polynesia, South Sea Index Page, I chose this because most of it takes place in Australia.
    George Alfred Henty was born on December 8, 1832 in Trumpington, Cambridgeshire, England and died in 1902, in Weymouth, Dorset, England. He served in the British Army as a Captain, and also as a war correspondent and continued that even after he left the army. But he is best known for his children's stories, writing 122 historical novels. He would spin tales for his children at dinner, and when a friend one day observed their fascination, he urged Henty to write them down. Good call! We now have a wonderful body of works from this gifted story-teller. He specialized in "boy stories," as did Robert Louis Stevenson. Here is his Wikipedia page to learn more. And here is his Project Gutenberg page where they have a listing of 111 works, as of this writing and I have downloaded a great number of those to store with my other "to-read" eBooks.
    As expected, I loved this novel! While The Cat of Bubastes was longer and more mature, this one was definitely written for children of a younger age, but that does not make it less enjoyable for adults, although I was able to whiz through it at light speed! And while I do recommend it for children, there are some cautious steps to take. Henty was of his time, and a British Imperialist, so he saw no problem with White Invaders stealing land from its rightful owners. I will ALWAYS side with the Indigenous Peoples and how I wish invaders had stayed away from America. So, if children are to read it, I suggest a parent or grandparent explain that it is a historical novel, and is based on the perceptions of the Invaders, and that is what it was, but that does not make it morally right. If a group of people invaded YOUR PROPERTY, would you not fight them or kill them if needed? People who are trying to defend what is rightfully theirs are labelled "savages," but I do not see it that way. And to make things even worse, England shipped their often brutal criminals to Australia.
    Henty's works reek not only of racism but classism, along with the above-mentioned British Imperialism. That doesn't make him a bad person, just a victim of the mindset of the time. Just look at us here in America! Indigenous people are STILL not recognized as the original and rightful owners of this land. And Black Americans, though they have made a tiny bit of headway recently, still also struggle to be recognized as equal citizens with White people. And as far as classism, the Global Elites are bent on wiping out every class but their own.
    Having said all that, let's get on with the story. It is a simple tale, and as mentioned, not very long, so this book review will be the same. It begins in Tipping, near Lewes in Sussex, where the thirteen-year old Reuben Whitney is being struck with a cane and insulted by the elderly schoolmaster for breaking a window which he did not break. He is considered a "bad boy" by many and blamed for everything, but in fact, he is a very intelligent and good, honest boy, many steps above the rest. Well, it happens that Mrs. Ellison, the squire's wife, who is the landlord to most of Tipping's population comes by the school. She has a natural hatred also toward Reuben, but her daughter, Kate, feels different. It is she who speaks out and says she saw Tom Thorne break the window. Mrs. Ellison said she would relay this to her husband. She told Mr. White that she did not approve of him hitting the students, and he would have to look for another position.
    That evening the squire and his wife discuss the dilemma. White would be appointed as clerk, since the present clerk, Peters, an elderly man, could be pensioned out and a new schoolmaster would be hired. And as for Tom Thorne, the squire isn't too happy with him anyways because his father runs an ale house and attracts a bad crowd, so he could threaten him with turning him out of his house if he did not thrash his son for allowing Reuben to take the blame for what he did.
    And as for Reuben, he was different than the others. And so was his independent mother.

Reuben Whitney was the son of a miller, near Tipping. John Whitney had been considered a well-to-do man, but he had speculated in corn and had got into difficulties; and his body was, one day, found floating in the mill dam. No one knew whether it was the result of intention or accident, but the jury of his neighbours who sat upon the inquest gave him the benefit of the doubt, and brought in a verdict of "accidental death." He was but tenant of the mill and, when all the creditors were satisfied, there were only a few pounds remaining for the widow.

With these she opened a little shop in Tipping, with a miscellaneous collection of tinware and cheap ironmongery; cottons, tapes, and small articles of haberdashery; with toys, sweets, and cakes for the children. The profits were small, but the squire, who had known her husband, charged but a nominal rent for the cottage; and this was more than paid by the fruit trees in the garden, which also supplied her with potatoes and vegetables, so that she managed to support her boy and herself in tolerable comfort.

    After the incident with the window, Tom threatened Reuben to get back at him, even though Reuben was willing to get punished for what Tom did. Tom was a hateful person, and that hatred and vow of "revenge" remained with him his entire life, as we shall see. Meanwhile, the squire sent to London in search of a new master.

"I don't want a chap who will cram all sorts of new notions into the heads of the children," the squire said. "I don't think it would do them any good, or fit them any better for their stations. The boys have got to be farm labourers, and the girls to be their wives; and if they can read really well, and write fairly, it's about as much as they want in the way of learning; but I think that a really earnest sort of man might do them good, otherwise. A schoolmaster, in my mind, should be the clergyman's best assistant. I don't know, my dear fellow, that I can explain in words more exactly what I mean; but I think you will understand me, and will send down the sort of man I want.

The cottage is a comfortable one, there's a good bit of garden attached to it, and I don't mind paying a few shillings a week more than I do now, to get the sort of man I want. If he has a wife so much the better. She might teach the girls to sew, which would be, to nine out of ten, a deal more use than reading and writing; and if she could use her needle, and make up dresses and that sort of thing, she might add to their income. Not one woman in five in the village can make her own clothes, and they have to go to a place three miles away to get them done."

    The man they sent was Mr. James Shrewsbury, formerly a wood engraver who had fallen down the steps and injured his back, so he was a bit crippled. His young wife had been a dressmaker. Well the choice turns out to be an excellent one.

They soon found that his method of teaching was very different to that which they were accustomed to. There was no shouting or thumping on the desk with the cane, no pulling of ears or cuffing of heads. Everything was explained quietly and clearly; and when they went out of the school, all agreed that the new master was a great improvement on Master White, while the master himself reported to his wife that he had got on better than he had expected.

    The students love him and he, in turn does a great deal on his own time to give special attention to students who want to proceed further in their education, Reuben being one of his top students. In fact, Reuben is really an exceptional young man, but Mrs. Ellison still does not trust him. She does not get along with Reuben's mother, either, because she is her own person and stands up for her son.
    Anyways, I don't want to make this a long review, and I want to cover a bit of his life in Australia, so just a couple more incidents. Reuben is hired by the squire to help the gardener, and does an excellent job. But there is a really mean dog that one day bites Reuben for no reason, causing Reuben to not be able to work or even walk for three days. But one day he does go for a walk, and Tom uses that opportunity to poison the dog and blame it on Reuben. Reuben is not a liar, yet the squire does not believe him, mostly because his wife is so untrusting of Reuben, so he is fired. Kate, however, always sticks up for Reuben, and is very upset because she knows he would not do such a thing. And his mother is livid. They pack up and prepare to move back to her home town of Lewes. Meanwhile, the squire has misgivings about his decision, and it is even stronger when he speaks to Mr. Shrewsbury, who has spent a great deal of time with Reuben in extra studies, and knows him as a fine and honest young man. He says to the squire, "The boy has a good heart as well as a good intellect, and nothing save his own confession would make me believe that he poisoned your dog." Shrewsbury tries to speak with Mrs. Whitney, encouraging her to remain so the matter is cleared along with Reuben's name, which would have worked out better, because Tom, having gotten away with that crime, will soon commit an even worse one that lands Reuben in jail. They move anyways, but in the background, the squire and Kate still look after him.
    Mrs. Whitney wants to get an apprenticeship with the mill wright in Lewes but cannot afford the fifty pounds. Reuben keeps in touch with Shrewsbury, who happens to mention that to the squire, and soon Penfold agrees to take Reuben as an apprentice. In three years, he is well respected as a fine young man and good worker. What he does not realize is that the story of the poisoned dog has reached Lewes. But he gets a visit from Kate who tells him his father does not think he did it.
     Anyways, it is a year later, while walking back to Tipping—quite a long walk—to help Mr. Shrewsbury with something, he accidentally comes upon Thorne and his gang planning to rob the Ellison's house. Before he can escape to warn them, he is knocked out, then reported to have committed the crime himself, a rumor spread, of course, by Thorne and his gang.
    Even though he is found not guilty, due to both Kate and her father's secret doings, he now has two crimes hanging over him that he did not commit, but have not been solved. Plus, it seems that until Thorne is found guilty of all his crimes and imprisoned, he will continue to cause Reuben misery.
    So Reuben decides the only thing to do is to leave England and go to Australia—somewhere that his past does not follow him. (But it does, anyways.) His mother refuses to leave her home town, and Mr. Shrewsbury supports Reuben in his choice. He is determined to be independent and self-supporting, so he gets a job as a ship's carpenter, and though he is very young, his former employees have given him outstanding references. He gets a job aboard a fine ship, the Paramatta which, unfortunately is carrying prisoners bound for Sydney. Reuben shudders as he reflects he might have been one of them. There are just a few passengers.
    Reuben quickly impresses everyone in the crew with his willingness to work hard and help out wherever he is needed. Bill, a well-seasoned sailor, takes him under his wing. And notice is also taken by the passengers. There is Captain Wilson, who becomes friendly to Reuben because Miss Hudson, who will soon become his fiancée, wishes to know more about him. She travels with her mother and father who is a wealthy and prominent "squatter" in New South Wales, and they are returning from England. Another young lady, Miss Furley, has obtained a governess position in Australia and becomes friends with Miss Hudson.
    They stop in Cape Town refresh their supplies, and it is here that the first of Reuben's impressive reactions to an emergency happens. A Malay, who had gone mad was running through the street with a weapon, and heading toward the two ladies, who froze in their tracks. Reuben was immediately on him, taking him down and keeping him from hurting anyone. The Malay was strong, so it was fortunate that a policeman came to the rescue and killed him. Reuben ends up with some injuries, but nothing life-threatening. And he also becomes a hero to all aboard the ship. The Hudsons and Captain discuss how they can reward him in a respectful way. Mrs. Hudson believes he should be given money, but the others disagree. Their decisions are presented in the form of offers of positions when they reach Australia.
Below, Reuben protects the two young ladies.

Reuben protects the two young ladies.

    Of course, it would not be a proper sailing story if there wasn't a serious storm, and there was, around the Cape, which is a dangerous stretch of sea. It was actually more like a hurricane, and though much damage was done, all the people survive. Reuben, as ship's carpenter, does a fine job of mending the leaks. However, the Paramatta is now drifting to the south toward Antarctica. Reuben wants to see a glacier, but Bill warns him that would not be good. They come perilously close to being trapped, but manage to stay free and soon find themselves heading back north. I cannot imagine being in a vessel that relied solely on sails, nonetheless, that's how they were until engines were invented.
    Now just a bit about Australia. Mr. Hudson makes Reuben a generous offer of land and sheep, but the Captain, who is with the police force, offers him a police position, to protect the settlers from not only the natives but from the bush rangers, who were escaped convicts. They sometimes caused no trouble but there was one particularly bad gang, and Reuben will have to face them at some point. He decides to go with the Captain's offer, much to the chagrin of the Hudsons.
    Captain Wilson and Frances Hudson are married, and he gets promoted, then promotes Reuben—to the most dangerous district in the settlements acting as Captain. Some promotion, eh?
    Anyways, Mr. Hudson fits him up with a horse, equipment, and one of his best Black servants, whom he had found fifteen years prior who had been shot by a bush ranger and was near death. Mrs. Hudson nursed him back to health. Jim is very attached to Mr. Hudson, and doesn't want to leave, so Mr. Hudson asks him to give it a try and if it doesn't work, he may return to him. Plus, the horse he loves is also going with Reuben. So he agrees and goes with Reuben and soon becomes just as attached to him. He is a key player in the story, and proves to be an invaluable assistant to Reuben.
    Reuben is determined to rid the area of the people who are stealing from the settlers or setting their buildings on fire at best, and slaughtering them at worst. The first big challenge is a large flock of sheep, stolen by Blacks, plus the murder of two shepherds, and it is here that Reuben experiences the talents of Jim. He loves horses and takes great care of them. He knows the landscape very well and has that inborn intuition associated with Indigenous peoples, and notices every tiny detail. He can tell if there are people nearby, and can tell if a trail stops.
    He hears and sees what the others do not, and can predict ahead of time what people will do. He lets Reuben know that the trackers supposedly helping them were actually traitors, which is why the tribe that stole the sheep keeps escaping them. After traveling miles and miles and waiting for the right moment, they finally recover the sheep and kill their attackers. Many of Reuben's people are killed also.
    Of course, Reuben is a hero for recovering the majority of the flock and sending a strong message to the thieves that this behavior will not be tolerated. But greater challenges now face him, that being a particularly murderous gang of bush rangers that have just attacked a settlement and injured the gentleman. His wife and her sister, amazingly, were spared. At first. And there is a reason.
    And there is a reason the title of this novel is "A Final Reckoning." I will let you figure that out, and hopefully read the book, or, as mentioned above, read it to or with, children or grandchildren, explaining that it is wrong for other nations to invade and steal the land from those who live there. This book would be enjoyed by even the late grade-school crowd, as it is written simply and easy to understand. Plus, it has a happy ending. Call me old-fashioned, but that’s what I like. There’s enough misery in the world already. Showing them photos of the Australian bush areas, as they still look today, would add to the interest. Here are two.

Australian Bush

Australian Bush

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