Bushrangers: Australia's Greatest Self-Made Heroes / by Evan McHugh

It pains me to criticize a gift, and when the gift happens to be a book that was selected with care by a friend, the pain is excruciating.  However, I must be honest in reporting on books to my friends here, especially those who are considering what book they should be selecting for their next read.  Bushrangers leaves the reader with a question that may not be answerable.  Why, given the colorful history of Australia’s many frontier outlaws, has no one managed to tell the story that does justice to the subject?  Other than Robbery Under Arms (and a fiction book at that) I have yet to read a narrative on bushrangers, or even Ned Kelly, that holds any more excitement than what one would expect when perusing a police blotter.  This book is no exception and is filled with names, dates, and the briefest summation of felonies and misdemeanors.  I’m not asking for much, but a little imagination to help flesh out the description of a stagecoach holdup or prison breakout would certainly be appreciated.  Instead, a single sentence to confirm the holdup or breakout occurred on a certain date is about as far as the prose in this book goes.

I find an interesting analogy on my side of the Pacific to my unsuccessful experiences in searching for good literature on Australia’s bushrangers.  In the United States there is a record of a western frontier garrison, Fort Phil Kearney, whose soldiers were besieged by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors for nearly two years before the post was abandoned.  During the interim there were pitched battles, massacres, and heroic marathon rides for rescue, yet the story of this American Iliad has never been the subject of a narrative worth reading.  In spite of a national obsession with the Western genre in cinema during the 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood has overlooked the tale of Fort Phil Kearney as well.  Such is life!

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Unfortunately so much historical writing is just as you describe - dry facts put together as a book with little thought for the reader. There are not too many historians who manage to make history come alive, when if they had lived the history they are attemping to describe it would have been anything but dry. Why is that? Is it that historians are too engrossed in facts and have little room left for imagination? Are they worried that if they add a little 'personality' to their tomes they might be accused of fictionalising history? Whatever it is, if you want a little excitement you have to turn to fiction. So, may I suggest a book by Allan Baillie, famed Australian children's author, entitled Riding with Thunderbolt: the diary of Ben Cross, Northern New South... It might be just the ticket!

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