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May Discussion – Junior Fiction – The Ratcatcher’s Daughter by Pamela Rushby

The Ratcatcher's DaughterPamela Rushby is a prolific Australian writer and once again she has not disappointed with her latest book, The Ratcatcher’s Daughter. We noted that the teacher’s notes from Harper Collins suggest this book should be a class text for year 9.  Whilst we felt that it was an accessible text for younger primary school age children (10+) it was most applicable to the national curriculum requirements for year 9.

What we most seemed to enjoy about this novel was that it was a taste of local history – it was particularly appealing to some of the group who lived or worked around the areas mentioned in the novel.  For some being able to visualise the areas (albeit they have changed quite dramatically since 1900s) really enhanced the reading experience.

We discussed the narrative structure and some of the group felt that there was too much repetition in the naming of places and the facts.  A few members of the group were of the opinion that there were some facts that Pamela was determined to put in the novel and therefore the novel was constructed around those facts.  There was some debate over this issue in the groups as whilst it detracted from the reading for some, others did not feel that there was a didactic approach and enjoyed learning the historical facts.  Some commented that the novel would open a whole new world of historical experience for the reader and that younger readers often appreciate the facts laid out before them.

There was a lot to discuss thematically with this novel.  Firstly we dealt with the issue of the Black Death and the concept of public health and the establishment of plague hospitals at Peel Island and Colmslie.  We noted the other childhood illnesses that Pamela mentions that had far greater fatalities than the plague but linked the actions of the people of the time to fear, superstition and rumour.  The topics of vaccination and conscientious objection and modern instances of epidemics were also deliberated.  For a fascinating documentary linking survivors of the Black Death to survivors of the AIDS epidemic click here.

Women’s history and the rights of women are a significant theme in the novel.  We talked about the marriage expectations of the time and the expectation of poorer women to work in service.  A few members of the group felt that the slight element of romance was unnecessary to the story for this age group while others felt that it was an exploration of the fact that women were married quite young at this time. Issy’s desire to become a businesswoman and Kate’s chance to become a nurse were also debated and we wondered whether this would become their reality.  We noted that women were first admitted into the University of QLD in 1911, and even then it was only for girls from wealthy families. Education for girls, leaving by age 13 for the poorer classes, and the opportunities for scholarships was also discussed. The education and expectations of the different children of these three families in the text were well developed.  We talked about the generational class system of the time and the class differences that were very nicely explored through the McKelvie, Slade and Lewis families.  The customs of each family – their food, transport, bedding, toilet facilities, clothing and leisure – were all explored to show how different people’s lives were in Brisbane at this time.

A fascinating part of the book for many of us was the exploration of burial rights and customs.  Some of us had seen first-hand Memento Mori photographs and mourning jewellery and shared their experiences with the group.  We talked about the different cultural observances that societies place on naming and showing the dead.  Some of the group members had been on the railway line of the ‘necropolis’ railway that was mentioned.  We also found it very interesting the different ways the social classes were treated in death when the plague hit.

Finally we also thought the novel raised some very interesting ideas about racial and class prejudice and we noted that it was in 1901 that the “White Australia Policy” became the government approach to immigration.  We really appreciated the exploration of government and bureaucratic powers of the period and the incorporation of historical political cartoons and felt they were a great introduction to primary sources.

This book was enjoyed by most of the group and we all came away learning something new about the history of our own city.