Saturday, October 8, 2011

Captain Thunderbolt and His Lady by Carol Baxter

Frederick Ward is perhaps better known as Captain Thunderbolt, one time convicted and imprisoned horse thief, escapee and most famously bushranger. A contemporary of Ben Hall whose NSW territory stretched from the central west to the Riverina; Thunderbolt based himself around the Hunter Valley and northwards.

Carol Baxter’s book Captain Thunderbolt and His Lady is a detailed and enthralling biography of Thunderbolt and his “wife” Mary Ann Bugg. Baxter takes what is known of the two from historical sources and gives her account the pace and intimacy of a novel.

Baxter starts with family histories of both Ward and Bugg, exploring the cultural background of their path to crime. The story is one of both racial and class prejudice. Being native born (whether black or white, to aboriginal or convict parents) was a distinct disadvantage in a society ruled from the motherland by British born aristocracy and law enforcers.

Harsh and inflexible punishments, rather than deter crime could ironically entrench it, making capture and imprisonment a less desired outcome than death. Giving wanted men the incentive to resist arrest at all costs, even their own lives and the lives of others.

Ward experienced this harshness, but by accounts didn’t allow himself to turn to outright brutality and ruthlessness, despite resorting to crime. Instead he tried to foster an impression of himself as a gentleman; as far as that would be possible while threatening victims with guns.

Baxter describes her writing style as “allow[ing] the participants to live their own stories, wherever possible, by having the narrator step into their shoes and experience what they experienced as recounted in their own statements. This offers the immediacy of fiction without fictionalising the narrative”.

It is a very effective way of keeping the reader’s involvement but could have the disadvantage of being suspected of being fictional. To counteract this suspicion Baxter provides her research details on a website cited in the acknowledgements at the end of the book. The notes were considered too extensive to include as end notes in the book.

I love history but find many history texts fail to keep my interest. I had no trouble with this one. Baxter has written a lively and compelling combination of biography and social history.

Thanks to Allen and Unwin for providing a review copy of thebook.

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