The Smuggler’s Wife – book review

Kitty, Amber & Band of Gold, by Deborah Challinor

Smugglers Wife Deborah Challinor

These books are a lot of fun. I defy anybody to read just the one. And I’ve just seen there is a fourth, published after a six year (and at least 5 book) gap. Hooray! I’m going back in.

This is the world of the beautiful and spirited Kitty, and while the stories are thrilling yarns with strong heroes and corrupt villains who cut an adventurous swash through the colonial antipodes, the stories are drawn on a meticulous painting of our history. The detail is impeccable and the many historical characters who brush up against our heroes are put faithfully in real events and exact geographical settings. Was there ever a girl as modern as Kitty in 1840s Paihia? Take that leap of faith and you’re off.

Kitty is the story of a well brought up English girl who is sent away with a missionary uncle and aunt to the ends of the earth to get over the shame of a naughty liaison. She lands in the Bay of Islands just as the Treaty of Waitangi is being signed. The world is made up of flimsy English government officials, persuasive missionaries, corrupt whalers, traders & escaped convicts and Māori on the cusp of change — history just as it ought to be — and they all come together where the mission houses look across the bay to the whore houses of Kororareka.  The local chief’s daughter is sent to the mission for learning and gets a nasty lesson, Kitty is wayward and the handsome Captain Rian Farrell steps in as Mr Love Interest. I get that. There is a crisis and an escape to Sydney. I’ve never been to Sydney but I feel I have after reading this and I expect the muddy lanes of the Rocks still to smell of fish heads and slaughter.

The second book, Amber returns us to New Zealand after Australian shenanigans with aboriginal burial grounds, stowaways and hopeless love. Kitty is sent to Auckland to keep safe from the anticipated fighting between Hone Heke’s Nga Puhi and the British government and the flagpole is repeatedly chopped down. This is all history we have read in school, but so much more compelling and gutsy when told by Challinor. All the details you didn’t want to ask your teacher are in here.  In Auckland Kitty picks up an urchin, and finds it impossible to put her down, even when it comes to riding to the rescue of Rian who cannot help but get caught up in the war. The pair constantly rescue each other.  Shit happens. The lovers cope stylishly.

I was in Melbourne when I moved on to Band of Gold, a happy coincidence as the action goes between Melbourne and the goldfield at Ballarat. I was visiting museums and walking the city during the day, and in the evenings finding the history popping back at me from the pages of this book. Did I mention the extraordinary research behind these stories? The backbone of this novel is true: the protesting colonial gold diggers being screwed by the government and clashing with the high handed military, played out with imperial arrogance and devastating consequences. Challinor gives us the squalor, danger and camaraderie of the mines along with the inherent racism and inequalities. And the story weaves on, with new and old characters, as Kitty finds love in many forms: unrequited and hotly requited, platonic and regretted. There are death defying hijinks and gold and brothels and Chinese businessmen, vendettas and loyalty. It all adds up to very satisfying reading.

Author: Cristina Sanders Blog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

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