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Jill Blee’s historical fiction always grabs a reader early because of its setting, and The Pines Hold Their Secrets is no exception.
Set on Norfolk Island when it was a Penal Colony the novel examines the key elements of politics, religion and social conventions of the time. This is something of a ‘rites of passage’ book, following the protagonist Elise Cartwright on her journey from Hobart to Norfolk Island to join her father who is deployed there as a Super Intendant of Agriculture. His role is a demotion from the profile they had in Hobart, and the motivation for this leaves an outstanding question throughout the novel.
While the politics of her father’s job creates many questions the key outstanding question focuses on one particular convict, and if he has been rightly convicted. Readers are drawn to this plotline from the second page of the novel when Elise is recognised by him on the ship, and he pleads for her help. Elise’s challenge is to determine how the convict knows her by name, and how he came to be incarcerated on Norfolk Island. As the novel progresses Elise realises that she must resolve these issues as soon as she can, as she is not the only one on the island interested in the plight of the convict.
As with most novels of the era there is a strong focus on the ‘old world’ politics, the battle of English vs Irish and of course the religious perspectives. Blee has covered these topics well in her other novels; The Liberator’s Birthday looks at Irish conflicts on the Ballarat Goldfields, while Brigit, looks at the Irish Potato Famine. What differentiates this novel is the characterisation. The plucky protagonist, a young girl at marrying age is able to highlight the claustrophobia of the island and the restrictions of the day. Elise is a character that readers want to see succeed; she’s intelligent, headstrong and driven by a strong desire to do good. Juxtaposed against the violence of the island she cuts a lone figure in the search for the truth. Her comparison to the corruption of the government officials is stark.
The setting of Norfolk Island creates a sense or violence just below the surface. The family have convicts as servants who are quite harmless. The other women of the island still find time for gossip and match making, and of course to work on their social standing. But when a chain gang escape on the Island it is a clear reminder of just how dangerous the situation was.
It’s not often that this historical era is told from the perspective of a young woman. The obvious comparison is Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of his Natural Life. The back cover of The Pines Hold Their Secrets describes the novel as a ‘historical romance’. This led me to begin my reading with certain notions of plot device and characterisation, but I was wonderfully surprised. While there is a romantic sub-plot (which I also found engrossing) it is Elise’s sense of right over wrong, and unwillingness towards violence which created one of the most memorable plot turns I’ve read for a while. I won’t spoil it, but it did leave me gasping and reading as fast as possible to see what happened next.
Jill Blee’s historical fiction is enjoyable and reminds readers about women’s history within a time mainly focused on by men. For more information about Jill, her e-publishing house and writing workshops visit www.jillblee.com
This post is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012.