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BarneyMarch 2016 Discussion – Junior Fiction – Barney and the Secret of the Whales by Jackie French

Barney and the Secret of the Whales Teaching Notes

About the book:
Barney Bean is keen to make his fortune and he hears a secret; a sailor’s secret about the treasure of the colony.  But how can chasing whales make you rich, and is an adventure at sea worth leaving everything you love? In this second book in The Secret Histories series, award-winning author and Children’s Laureate Jackie French explores a little-known topic about Australia’s past that is beautifully illustrated by Mark Wilson. This novel is a companion to Birrung in which Barney and his sister Elsie first met and befriended Birrung two years earlier.

About the author:
Jackie French is a multiple award-winning author who deals with a very wide-range of topics. Jackie was the Australian Children’s Laureate (2014–15) and the 2015 Senior Australian of the Year. At the back of the book, there are extensive Author’s Notes (pp 122–9) by Jackie French on many of the historical and cultural issues referred to in this text. This should be an invaluable resource to teachers in using the book, in conjunction with these notes, in the classroom.

Jackie French is a prolific writer of quality historical children’s fiction and we all agreed that she does not disappoint with this novel.  It was also refreshing to see such a strong and reliable character as Barney as the main protagonist. Most of us acknowledged that we knew very little detail about the importance of whaling to the growth and prosperity of the early Australian colonies. We were impressed with the level of detail French includes, particularly in Chapter 10 (French 2016, p68-78) about the processes involved with the killing and butchering of the animal,

We harpoon the whales, and fight them till they give up their lives. And then we take their oil. A whale can give seven hundred pounds of oil and a goodly amount of whalebone too, for everything from umbrellas to, er, ladies’ garments.

(French 2016, p 13)

It is very difficult to read about this subject with a 21st-century mindset and it was commented that we had to remind ourselves to imagine what it was like in the historical era.  With that, some of us felt that Barney’s views regarding his guilt over the killing of the whale were very modern,

And the whalers will buy what you grow, said a whisper in my mind. They’ll buy your apples, your potatoes, to provision their ships. If they make you rich, Barney Bean, the silver pieces they pay you will be from whales as surely as if you threw the harpoon or called out, ‘There she blows!’

( French 2016, p120).

The novel certainly provides excellent opportunities for students to talk about the ethics involved in this industry, modern whaling practices, and also to compare current attitudes to animal rights with those of previous generations. Many of our students would have seen the whales migrating along the Queensland coast so it would also generate some very relevant discussion regarding protecting our local environment.

For those who had read Birrung, the first in The Secret Histories series, we enjoyed picking up the stories of Barney and Elsie.  French also provides historical notes about both the good and the bad treatment of Indigenous women by whaling crews. It was also interesting to note Barney’s comparison of Birrung’s plight to that of the whales,

I thought of Birrung again then. I don’t know why. Maybe because she had dived like that, as if the water was her home as much as the land. Maybe because we were taking her land, much like we were conquering the whales’ seas. Maybe because she was beautiful, and so were the whales.

(French 2016, pp 94–5).

French gives an excellent background into the establishment of Sydney and the increasing self-sufficiency of the colony.  Seeing the colony through Barney’s eyes was a fresh approach.  Although the founding inhabitants had come close to starvation in the first few years, within time, the lives of the colonists were markedly different from that left behind in England,

Suddenly I felt proud of the colony I was leaving. We’d come across the world, even if most hadn’t chosen to. And if the huts were falling down, there were good houses too, like ours and the governor’s, and good gardens, and a life in sunlight and freedom, not skulking and starving in the London fog.

(French 2016, p 41).

Barney is certainly aware that if he works hard there are opportunities for him to make a living and life for himself.  As he notes, everyone in the colony is there for a new start heralding the beginning of a more egalitarian society,

I glared at him. One thing you didn’t do in the colony was ask why anyone had been sent here. Not one convict in a hundred admitted they were guilty anyway.

(French 2016, p8).

Beautifully written in first person, past tense there are some lovely examples of figurative language including, “The moon rode high above me, like it was a sailing ship too, making its way across the stars”, “The wind bit at me with teeth of ice’, “The headlands of the harbour were like two giant arms, welcoming us back” ( French 2016, p.26, p63, p101).

There is a great deal to discuss with this book; from comparing Indigenous means of survival to early efforts of colonial self-sufficiency, the beginning of the sheep industry and the relationships between the different classes in the early colony.  The enduring friendship between Barney and Elsie is obviously one that we hope will be further developed in the next book in the series.  We highly recommend this novel for year 4 and up.