Beware the kangaroo

Sometimes stories are strikingly similar to reality

An incident reported in the Canberra Times last year when the ACT Minister Shane Rattenbury was attacked by a kangaroo while out walking would have no doubt left the children's author Anne Bowman feeling a sense of justification for her fictional imaginings back in the 1850s. Anne Bowman was an English novelist who wrote adventure stories for boys set in exotic places. Bowman wrote such stirring tales as The castaways, or the adventures of a family in the wilds of Africa ; The young exiles, or the wild tribes of the north ; The boy voyagers, or the pirates of the east ; Among the tartar tents of the lost fathersThe bear hunters of the Rocky Mountains ; and The young yachtsman: of the wreck of the Gypsy. Her books were obviously popular with both her American audience and an English and Australian readership, and were produced in several editions during the 1850s and 1860s. You can read the full text of some of these from the Internet Archive.

Bowman never visited Australia, but as an outpost at the far side of the world, it was a prime setting for one of her heroic tales. The kangaroo hunters or, adventures in the bush involves a family crossing the country from the north-west coast to the south-east, ending their journey in Melbourne. The Library holds several copies of both the UK and US editions.

Cover of the 1858 London edition

Cover of the 1858 London edition http://nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn2940478

Title page of The kangaroo hunters

Title page of The kangaroo hunters

Like many children's stories of the time, Bowman's novels portrayed boys confronting dangerous situations, often involving wildlife, and triumphing with displays of courage and "derring-do". For Australia, the potential fauna available to demonstrate the protagonist's courage and resourcefulness was a bit limited. There’s not much scare factor in a bandicoot, koala or platypus! Hence Bowman's choice of the kangaroo for her hero's brave exploits in the wilds of the Australian bush.

Wrestling with a fearsome kangaroo

Wrestling with a fearsome kangaroo

This genre of adventure stories featuring young boys was a popular one in the 19th century, the basis of many novels as well as periodicals such as The boy's own annual. Another early work that used Australia as a setting was A boy's adventures in the wilds of Australia, or, Herbert's note-book by William Howitt, published in 1855 in both London  and Boston

Illustration from A boy's own adventures in the wilds of Australia

Illustration from A boy's own adventures in the wilds of Australia

The first children’s book actually published in Australia was A mother’s offering to her children, published in 1841. It takes the form of a dialogue between a mother and her children covering a wide variety of topics, including some rather gruesome shipwreck stories. So also in its way involved tales of heroism and adventure.

Cover of A mother's offering to her children

Cover of the Library's well-thumbed copy of A mother's offering to her children

Title page of A mother's offering to her children

Title page of the Library's copy

However, this was one of only a small number of children's books published in Australia until later in the 19th century, so young readers were largely dependent on British or American authors whose works arrived via relatives or new settlers, or were imported by local booksellers. Copies of The kangaroo hunters for example were advertised for sale in the Sydney Morning Herald of 14 May 1859, less than a year after its publication, by Moore’s Book Depot (also called Moore’s Book Mart) for 6s. 6d. At a time when the average weekly earnings in New South Wales were around 1-1.5 pounds (20-30 shillings), this was quite a significant cost for a children’s book - a little over one-fifth of an average weekly pay packet. This indicates that the audience would have been largely middle class.

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