19 October 2016

by Judith Silverthorne
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$16.95 ISBN 9-781550-506525

I’ve now read enough of Judith Silverthorne’s numerous books to know that anything she writes will be a worthy read, and my belief was confirmed again with her latest, the historical novel Convictions. This time the multi-award-winning Regina writer (and Executive Director of the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild) has penned an action-packed, fact-based tale about 14-year-old Jennie, a British lass sentenced to serve seven years in a penal colony in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania, Australia) after she was ungenerously convicted of theft. First however, Jennie must survive the four or five months of sailing on a convict ship with 234 other women and children, and a crew that includes more than a few letches. It’s cramped, filthy, and there’s precious little food or medical aid. Before long Jennie finds herself stitching up a fellow convict, Lizzie, a “doxie” who’s been flogged almost to death by the evil guard Red Bull.

I’m in awe of how Silverthorne pulls it all together: the historical and sailing details, the adventures (including fistfights, a hurricane, and a shipwreck of Titanic proportions), and even the first sparks of a romance between Jennie and the ship’s youngest guard, Nate. This is extremely competent writing, and what’s more, it’s a story that’s hard to put down.

It’s 1842. Jennie’s doomed to the faraway penal colony because she stole “a mouldy sack of oats” from a garbage bin to feed her starving family. Silverthorne brings the story to life in paragraph one via sensory details, including “sun-baked cobblestones” that burn Jennie’s bare feet, and the “sudden cloying stench of dead fish, rotting wood and slime.” As with an establishing shot in cinema, the author immediately transports readers into the story’s time and place. In the next paragraph she introduces conflict. A guard yanks Jennie, and she “winced as he cuffed her wrists behind her back. A second guard snapped shackles on her ankles”. Soon after, the veteran writer includes a scene: we hear the rough voices of other convicts and guards, plus bystanders’ comments, and this dialogue smartly provides background information while also increasing the story’s plausibility.

The convicts get little time on deck, but when they do Jennie notes “no sign of a coastline in any direction; only the never-ending grey sea mirrored by the dreary mackerel sky. The desolate sounds of the wind, the water and the odd call of a seabird.” Red Bull and other guards are constant threats, and the women’s nights are spent “fending off vermin and nightmares.” Prisoners are threatened with a flogging frame, and there are “punishment balls and torture irons strapped to the wheelhouse.”

This is no pleasure cruise. Jennie’s smart, resourceful, and strong, but when she finds herself having conversations with herself, she worries she’ll end up like “Crazy Mary”. Fortunately there are a few warm hearts on board, including matronly Sarah and young Alice, who become Jennie’s closest friends during the life or death journey.

Will they survive? The answer’s in the book. I highly recommend you discover it.


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