Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Book Review - The Gold Rush by David Hill

The Gold Rush by David Hill

North Sydney : William Heinemann Australia, 2010  ISBN 9781864711301

David Hill is perhaps better known in Australia for being at one time the Managing Director of The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, but is rapidly developing a new career of popular historian. His first book was a history of the Fairbridge Farm School - a place to which he was sent from Britain with his brothers.

From that more personal book he has branched out to give us popular histories of the First Fleet, and in 2012 a history of the French and British discovery of Australia - The Great Race.

The Gold Rush is a bit of a mish-mash of a book in some ways; the back cover blurb states "David Hill brings the people and events of Australia's great gold-rush years brilliantly to life, using the diaries, journals, books, letters, official reports, parliamentary inquiries and newspaper articles of the time, along with his own renowned skills as a master storyteller." Hill certainly uses all these sources, and his eye for a good story is both a strength and a weakness of this book.

This is not really a history of the gold rush in the same way that Geoffrey Blainey's Rush that never ended is a history of the gold rush. There is no real in-depth look at society, the economics of the gold-rush, or any long term narrative on how the various rushes affected the country; this is a book that is at it's core a set of chapters covering the initial rush to most of the major goldfields in Australia. As such it is a list of dates and places, illuminated by apposite quotes from contemporary sources as they fit the bill. Hill does go into some detail about the Eureka Rebellion, and talks at some length through the book about the plight of the many thousands of Chinese that came to Australia to try their luck. There is almost no discussion of what happened when the alluvial gold ran out, and mining became a capitalist enterprise, with shareholders, labourers and managers. This could not be the only book for someone who wants to know the full story (there is at least a bibliography, to assist in further reading).

Hill has an eye for a good story, and while the book as a whole is well-written, in an easy-to-digest style, it sometimes veers a little off the "main lead" of the story. Four or five pages on the life of Lola Montez is too much setup for her cameo in Australian history (horsewhipping a newspaper editor in Ballarat); no matter how good the story of her life may be, 99.8% of it has nothing to do with Australian gold rushes.

In fact the whole last chapter, which is a nice recap of the Lasseter mystery really has nothing to do with the gold rush per se, as no gold was ever found in that disastrous venture. However, it does tie back in to one of the central threads in the story Hill has for us here, no matter where in Australia he takes us - "gold fever". The book is chapter after chapter of men dropping everything they have for the lure of finding gold. Mostly what they found was hardship and privation, but many of them did make a living from the fields, and managed to make a go of their lives.

As an introduction to the amazing world of the Australian gold rushes, The Gold Rush does it's job - it's a well written concise account of the major events - however, for the interested reader it is not a one-stop shop - you would need to move on to meatier fare.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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