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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Pearl-shell Diver: A story of adventure from the Torres Strait, byKay Crabbe.Sydney: Allen And Unwin, 2016

Sario lives with his family on a remote Torres Strait island, which he never wants to leave - but the winds of change are stirring. The year is 1898 and the pearl-shell trade is at its height. When his father is coerced to join a white trader on his pearling lugger, thirteen-year-old Sario must go to work as a swimming diver to support the family. He can earn more as a pump diver, and is excited by the idea of walking on the sea floor, but the competition is fierce, and the only captain who will take him on runs the worst outfit in the fleet. With the constant danger of shark attack and the storm of the century approaching, can Sario provide for his family and realise his dream? 

There are quite a few novels out there about the history, trials and tribulations of indigenous Australians, some by indigenous Australian, but not a lot about the Torres Strait Islanders. I found this intriguing; they have quite a history of their own. With a lot of Islanders as students at my school, I found it especially interesting.

In 1898, around Thursday Island, where Sario must go when his mother is sick with pleurisy and needs white man medicine, there are not only Islanders, but indigenous Australians, Filipinos, Chinese, Malays and Japanese, some of them on the pearl-shell lugger where he gets a job. Australia is about two years from Federation - and the White Australia Policy. Sario's boss is not too bad, but in the end, he is hiring his young crew of various ethnicities because they're cheap and white boys wouldn't want the dangerous diving jobs. And they are dangerous, even Sario's much-wished-for pump-diving, with risks of the bends, sharks, possible tangling of the air pumps. For the crew in general there are also sharks and storms and the risks of going deaf as Sario's sister Leilani has, and having various illnesses as his mother has.

But right now, it's the only way for Sario to make a living and help his mother.

The novel is short, only 184 pages, but the characters are as well drawn as they could have been in a much longer book. Sario's new friends are people the reader comes to know and care about in the short time they appear. 

As history, it works well, and teaches us about a place and people we might not have known about before.

The only gripe I have is that the story takes a while to build up, but even there, the character and his background are also building up and by the time he gets to Thursday Island, we feel we understand him.

Suitable for late primary/early secondary students, medium level readers.


Unknown said...

I had no idea about the history of Australia or the pearl-diving industry. It sounds fascinating and very dangerous. I adored the movie "Men of Honor" with Cuba Gooding Jr and DeNiro. I bet an equally riveting story could be built around pearl diving, although this book sounds a bit weak on the plot side. Thanks for the review!

Sue Bursztynski said...

It's a children's book, Lexa. The hero us about thirteen years of age. And the plot takes a while to build up, but it's there. It's less about pearl diving than about the Islanders who had to do it to cope. :-)