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Scapegallows by Carol Birch

Scapegallows (2007)

by Carol Birch

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874212,012 (3.56)23
New South Wales, 1817. Margaret Catchpole is stranded at a settler's homestead as the floodwater draws in, and she finds herself facing death - as she has several times before. She looks back over her life - the complex and stormy partnership with Will Laud, a 'hell-born-babe', that led her into the world of smuggling and in to a double life. After Will is forced to flee the country, Margaret is taken on as a nursemaid by the wealthy Cobbold family, but a crime against them means she is tried and sentenced to hang. She avoids death but when an elaborate gaol escape fails, Will is shot dead and Margaret captured. Sentenced once more to hang, she looks death full in the face. But she doesn't die. Her sentence is transmuted to transportation for life to Australia.… (more)



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The story of Margaret Catchpole born into a smuggler's world in Suffolk 1762. A true story. Margaret leads a double life that brings about her downfall, sentenced to hang not once but twice she is transported to Australia with other convicts. ( )
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
Good idea for a novel, using Margaret Catchpoles life. She “escaped” the gallows twice and was transported as a convict to Australia. While in Australia, her letters to England form some of the only personal accounts of early life in the colony from a female ex-convict’s perspective. Also, her letters are the only surviving written personal account of 2 major floods. Unfortunately, this book, delves more into her early life in England and her infatuation with the sailor turned smuggler, William Laud. That wouldn’t have been too bad, but then the author, who writes well enough, had poorly researched the introduction to the novel and that really put me off from the start.

I hate to nitpick, I’m not normally harsh, but a 5 minute internet search revealed 2 discrepancies that made me question every little point.

First discrepancy: In 1817, the character, Margaret, makes a reference to the harsh treatment in the penal settlement of Norfolk Island. The first Norfolk Island settlement had been abandoned early in 1814 and the first settlement was seen more as a farm, providing stores for Sydney. In 1824 the British government instructed the Governor of New South Wales to occupy Norfolk Island as a place to send “the worst description of convicts”, and that was that period, at least 7 years after the character’s remark, when the island became a hell on earth, due to harsh treatment of the convicts.

Second discrepancy: Brisbane was home to the first Jacaranda tree in Australia, it was collected in 1864 from elsewhere, possibly Brazil where it is a native. Nice idea to use a Jacaranda tree for refuge in a flood, not sure that it would work too well, especially in 1817, 47 years before the tree was introduced to Australia.

There are other plot points that were suspect which I won’t go into, but I hope if this author continues to write historical fiction, she pays more care to her research. I like my historical fiction to speculate on the unknown gaps in history and not make a hash of what is easily researched. This novel is very disappointing, not recommended.

Interested in Margaret Catchpole – a transcript of her letters in her original spelling, are easily available here: http://image.sl.nsw.gov.au/Ebind/a1508/a547/a547000.html ( )
  KimB | Jun 28, 2009 |
Interesting story about Margaret Catchpole and the author managed to get enough researched material to build a great story with alot of detail into the life of this brave and strong woman. However, the details that were so rich from the time of her youth, through her love with Will Laud, her friendships with her various employers and close family ties through to her sudden downfall to one criminal act were sadly missing after she was sentenced to transportation to Australia.

I would have loved to have learned much more about her time in Australia, where, sent as a convict and having gained employment with one of the families who freely went to Australia, she later gained her freedom and built a good life for herself, providing midwife services to the ladies, being a mentor and friend to an aborigine boy, and building a store and business of her own. These details, were sadly lacking, and given that she had written many letters home to her family and friends, I expected the author to spend more time allowing us to celebrate Margaret's eventual triumph. Her life story in Australia deserved at least as much telling as her early beginnings. ( )
1 vote cameling | Dec 6, 2008 |
This is a beautiful story well-told, based on the personal correspondence and known biography of a strong and resilient woman, Margaret Catchpole, who was transported to Australia in the early nineteenth century. A kernel of fact makes all the difference, and Margaret's eventful life story is all the more captivating because she really lived it.

Carol Birch is a stunning author, embroidering Margaret's tale with earthy, familiar dialogue and honest relationships that are relevant to a modern readership, but still credible as historical fiction. Indeed, apart from the harsh English justice system of the eighteenth century, which casts Margaret to the other side of the world, the era in which this novel is set is merely background for an engrossing and timeless biography of an amazing woman. In the afterword, Carol Birch notes that she broke with the Victorian moralising of the only available account of Margaret's life, and the result is a vivid portrait of an outspoken, determined, loyal and unbroken spirit, who never married or had a family of her own, yet who is far from a feminist cliche. Thank you, Carol Birch! ( )
1 vote AdonisGuilfoyle | Oct 13, 2008 |
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