'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Saturday 13 February 2010

Review: Captain Cook's Apprentice

Title: Captain Cook's Apprentice

Author: Anthony Hill

Publisher: Penguin Australia, A$19.95RRP

Format: Softcover

Language: English

ISBN: 9780143004820

For ages: Teen to young adult

Type: Novel (historical)

About: I haven't always been a history buff. It seems the older I get and the further I move into the future, the more I feel the desire to look back to the past. And, on top of that, to actually totally and thoroughly enjoy the past, like I did with this latest book by award-winning Canberra author, Anthony Hill.

I can definitely say that the thought of reading Captain Cook's Apprentice interested me. What I can't say is just how much. This really surprised me. I loved this book.

Not only has Hill captured a quite astonishing historical (and painstakingly researched) account of the travels of Captain Cook and his discovery of the unchartered East Coast of Australia, he has most cleverly aligned commonplace fact with fabulous fiction by creating a main character so real, he appears, well... real. In fact, he was real.

His name was Isaac Manley, and, as chronicled in the author's note at the front of the book, we discover this remarkable young man began his naval life as an Endeavour servant boy and rose steadily through the ranks to Admiral. He was also the last survivor of the Endeavour crew, and lived to a ripe old age, dying in 1837.

The opening to Captain Cook's Apprentice (entitled 'Beginnings') introduces us to Isaac, a spirited young lad from a family of some privilege (indeed, it was suggested his role aboard the Endeavour was secured in part by his well-to-do father) whose adventurous spirit sends him on a seafaring journey with one of England's most celebrated explorers - Captain James Cook.

The ultimate goal of the journey was to secure the East Coast of New Holland - the enormous landmass south of Papua New Guinea, via South America and Tahiti - and a coastline as yet unchartered on European maps.

This impressive voyage, astounding and as historically significant as it was, seemed paltry in comparison to the everyday life of a seafarer in the late eighteenth century. The intricate details, nuances and emotion Hill carefully dissects and lays bare is so intruiging, and at times horrific, I doubt a gore-loving, adventure-bound teen will find any better in the depths of the greatest fantasy novels.

Being that this story, for the most part, is based on fact, adds even more splendour to the fictional renderings of Hill's characterisations. Inventing the words (complete with the verbally robust seafaring slang of our ancestors) and emotion and everyday actions of these real-life historical figures must have been a dream run for this author, who has a clear love of our country's past, and the strong will to preserve its tales, both lustrous and sordid, for many generations to come.

The book is cleanly and intelligently written, flows beautifully and does not pander. It is graphic at times but totally PG15 in that its nature would suit those mid-teen to adult. Younger readers would need to have advanced reading skills, and there are mild references to sex and some violence.

The book's beautifully rounded characters flesh out the astounding trials and tribulations encountered on Endeavour's 1768 journey, and the visuals the author provides by way of intimate and dedicated detail is something to behold.

Photographs, paintings, maps and illustrations dot the pages of this book, lending deeper understanding to the factual text so delicately teased and formed into this remarkable story, and plenty of well-placed dialogue leaves the reader feeling so close to the characters, it's as though one was standing with feet firmly planted on the sloping deck of the great ship herself.

On a beach holiday to the south coast of New South Wales recently, almost squarely at the point where Cook's Endeavour began its permiter crawl of the entire East Coast of Australia, I stopped more than once to stare longingly at the far horizon, imagining Endeavour sailing smoothly past the heads, on its way north and carrying a bellyful of remarkable young men - many of whom lost their lives or had their world turned upside down in a quest for finding the unknown.

Anthony Hill should feel proud that his book made me stand puffed and proud on those eastern shorelines - proud to be an Australian, and proud to have learned more about the historical meanderings that has made this country what it is today.

On that point, the author most certainly does not hesitate to reveal the atrocities that also occured during Endeavour's navigation into new Australian territory, mostly out of ignorance and incompetence than flat out savagery, but awful nonetheless. And it is with this well-rounded appreciation for the whole truth that the author presents a book all Australians could learn from.

Isaac Marley may be long gone, but this fictional account of a very real man on a very real voyage of discovery is something I'll long remember. And if every good adventure story has danger, intrigue, conflict, terrorising obstacles and triumphs, then Captain Cook's Apprentice is a rollicking adventure indeed.

Author website

This book is available online:

Booktopia - A$17.96
The Nile - A$17.99
Australian Online Bookstore - A$16.95