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Review: Shepherd, by Catherine Jinks
Text Publishing, 2019. 226 pp. $30 AU

New South Wales, 1840. Tom Clay, transported to Australia at age twelve for poaching in Suffolk, has always loved animals and been good with them. It’s people he has trouble with, especially the murderous types British courts have inflicted on their infant colony in the name of justice. But as long as Tom can stick to tending sheep at the outpost station, he’s got a loyal dog, Gyp, and life’s not so bad.

John Oxley’s chart of part of the New South Wales interior, 1822, from Moreton Bay to Port Philip (courtesy State Library of New South Wales Z/Cc 82/1-3, via Wikimedia Commons)

Trouble is, Dan Carver, a fellow employee of the same rancher, has killed a couple of their coworkers and seems to be just getting started on the others. Consequently, young Tom, who, by rights, should be learning his letters in an English school, has to move fast to save his skin and that of Rowdy Cavanaugh, a glib jokester whose crime in England was passing counterfeit coin. His garrulousness, which he either can’t control or doesn’t care to, makes stealthy movement difficult if not impossible, and may cost Tom and him their lives.

I should add that the phrase by rights doesn’t exist for criminals like Tom, or for anyone else sent to Australia for punishment — “lagged,” it’s called. Therefore, even if Tom somehow manages to evade Carver and alert the rancher, he’s likely as not to hang for Carver’s murders. Nobody believes a “lag,” and when it’s one lag’s word against another, the stronger, older man will likely prevail.

As you may have guessed, this excellent thriller — I defy you to start it and put it down — has more to offer than unending sequences of “no — and furthermore,” gripping though they are. Shepherd tells the grisly, heart-breaking story of how lags come to Australia, or how Tom does, and the various stratagems he must employ to stay alive, let alone avoid flogging or any other casual brutality his masters may devise.

In beautifully crafted, brief flashbacks that seamlessly flow with the main narrative, you learn about the boy’s harrowing sea journey from England, the filthy so-called majesty of the law, and his dreadful childhood in a family of poachers: “I don’t think I’ve slept easy since I was in my mother’s womb.” Shepherd spares nothing, yet I never find the violence gratuitous or sense it’s included for shock value.

I wish the novel didn’t start with a prologue, and Jinks doesn’t need to tell the reader what’s coming, because her first chapter pulls you in right away. However, I like the writing in the prologue, which shows you much about young Tom in few words:

When I first came here, I thought it a cruel affliction to walk through a wood and not know what bird was singing, or which plants were safe to eat. Now I understand it’s more than an affliction; it’s certain death.
I see nothing around me that I can properly name. Ferns. Vines. Bushes. Trees that shed their bark instead of their leaves. Flowers with spikes instead of petals.
I’m going to die wordless, in a lonely hollow in a strange land. I’m going to die among beasts that I don’t understand and plants that have killed me.

The passage suggests both the author’s gift for spare, direct prose and characterization: “I’m going to die among beasts I don’t understand and plants that kill me.” For Tom’s a born tracker, the one advantage he possesses in his attempt to escape Carver or get the drop on him — plans and circumstances change rapidly. How the boy copes with the natural world would make a novel in itself, for his knowledge and ingenuity constantly surprise; yet, as the prologue says, he’s conscious of what he doesn’t know.

His skill and humility set him apart from the other colonists. He’s also alone in his admiration for the Black indigenous people and their understanding of the land, flora, and fauna. He fears them too, because of what they might do, though Carver’s and their boss’s treatment of them troubles Tom. There’s muted social commentary in that as well, and though the indigenous folk linger on the fringes of the narrative, you sense them watching the whites act like maniacs.

This slim volume has a lot going for it — a lightning-paced story, a landscape physically rendered in emotionally resonant detail, and a teenager fighting not only for his life, but to live decently, in a place where no one understands the concept. Few Australian novels reach our shores, unfortunately, unless a major house picks them up. I wish more Americans knew about this small press in Melbourne, Text, which has given us Shepherd and also A Room Made of Leaves, by Kate Grenville.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.