Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

Bonnie knows my reading tastes well. I do not read much fiction, but I enjoy a good story in a historical or foreign setting from which I can learn about another time or place. She suggested The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville, a recent novel written by an award-winning Australian author, a book that succeeded in getting me away from the here and now.

In a note at the back of The Lieutenant, Grenville explains that the book really is fiction, though most of its events did occur. The British Royal Navy transported convicts from England to Australia in 1788, establishing a settlement at Botany Bay south of the current city of Sydney. Among the force sent to watch the prisoners was William Dawes, a marine charged with astronomical observations who attempted to learn to speak to the local Aborigines. Grenville renames her character Daniel Rooke, gives him a childhood story set in Portsmouth, England, and has him re-enact the role that Dawes played in the colony. I do not want to give away the ending, so I will only say that the issues examined include 1) the ethics of colonizing the lands of indigenous people and 2) the expectation that soldiers will follow abhorrent commands.

The Lieutenant is a fast reading novel with only a handful of characters that are fleshed out. Every one seems to have good intentions, but serving the British Crown overrides the welfare of all the inhabitants of Botany Bay. This calm and thoughtful novel might make better choice to start a discussion about the impact of the British colonization on indiginous people than more polarized literature.

Grenville, Kate. The Lieutenant. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008. ISBN 9780802119162

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