A Classic Year: 1.3 Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood

When we last left my discussion of the plot of Robbery Under Arms, two of the main characters, Dick Marston and Captain Starlight, had been convicted of cattle-stealing and sentenced to 5 and 7 years respectively. Their prospects didn't look exactly rosy at this point, but Boldrewood is not about to allow his main protagonists to linger too long in a state of inactivity and within a couple of months Dick's brother Jim and Starlight's main companion, the half-caste Warrigal, have sprung them from prison and helped them back to the Hollow, their secret hideaway. After this the Marstons and Starlight take to robbing stage-coaches and banks. The gold rush of the 1850s has started and there is money to be had at practically every turn. A large number of city-folk, unschooled in the ways of the bush, have left home to work on the diggings and they prove to be easy pickings for the gang. And yet all through this period, Boldrewood goes out of his way to paint the Marstons and Starlight as conflicted criminals: they are only doing this as they are already well down the road to destruction, and they would go straight if they could. An opportunity presents itself and, for a year, Starlight and the Marstons join the goldfield diggings outside Bathurst in New South Wales until their identity is revealed by a woman that Dick has previously jilted. A narrow escape for Dick Marston and Starlight, but capture for Jim, leads the group to re-evaluate their lot. The result is the rescue of Jim from custody and the execution of a daring plan to escape to Queensland, and from there to America. Needless to say, it all goes wrong.

This is real "Ripping Yarns"/"Boys Own Adventure" stuff here: brazen adventures, falls from grace, and daring escapes all adding up to a plot that keeps moving, which is rarely allowed to settle, and which maintains its level of tension throughout. Boldrewood paints his main characters as complete humans - with their desires and hates, virtues and foibles, their good side and their bad side. Some of the lesser characters in the book tend more towards stereotypes - either fully good or fully evil - but this is a minor problem. The rollicking plot and the depiction of the main players more than makes up for this slight failing. Set at a time of great change in Australia, as the country was slowly moving towards nationhood, the book truly deserves its place in this classic list of Australian literary works.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on January 9, 2008 9:38 PM.

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