“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.
An impassioned, charming, and hilarious debut novel about a young woman’s coming-of-age, during one of the harshest whaling seasons in the history of New South Wales.
1908: It’s the year that proves to be life-changing for our teenage narrator, Mary Davidson, tasked with providing support to her father’s boisterous whaling crews while caring for five brothers and sisters in the wake of their mother’s death. But when the handsome John Beck — a former Methodist preacher turned novice whaler with a mysterious past — arrives at the Davidson’s door pleading to join her father’s crews, suddenly Mary’s world is upended.
As her family struggles to survive the scarcity of whales and the vagaries of weather, and as she navigates sibling rivalries and an all-consuming first love for the newcomer John, nineteen-year-old Mary will soon discover a darker side to these men who hunt the seas, and the truth of her place among them.
Swinging from Mary’s own hopes and disappointments to the challenges that have beset her family’s whaling operation, RUSH OH! is an enchanting blend of fact and fiction that’s as much the story of its gutsy narrator’s coming-of-age as it is the celebration of an extraordinary episode in history.
If you’d asked me a few weeks ago whether I’d be interested in reading a book about whaling in Australia in the early 1900s, well… let’s just say the odds wouldn’t be in favor of a yes.
So I’m completely delighted to report that Rush Oh! is an awesome, funny, moving, and highly enjoyable read!
The historical elements are amazing, even more so after reading the author’s notes and discovering that the Davidsons were a real family, and that the snippets of breathless newspaper coverage about the whaling crews and their captain are all taken from the actual newspaper accounts of the time.
At times, Rush Oh! has an almost Austen-esque feel to it. Narrator Mary has a somewhat distorted view of her own talents and attractions, so her telling of the story is full of her own little oddities and self-flatteries. At the same time, she bears witness to her father’s fearless leadership and nobility — which comes through even in the most brutal moments of a whale hunt.
The whale hunts themselves are sometimes harrowing and sometimes humorous. The whaling crews of Twofold Bay are assisted by a pod of Killers (orcas), who corral the humpbacks and other whales that wander into the bay, acting with viciousness as well as playfulness, almost like water-dwelling sheepdogs. The Killers are looked on fondly by the townsfolk, each known by name and personality, and seem to have almost celebrity status. What’s really amazing is that these Killers really were a part of the history of Eden in New South Wales, just as described and with the names used in the novel — Tom, the leader, and his cohorts including Hooky, Humpy, and more.
Sounds weird, doesn’t it? But trust me — Rush Oh! is a pure delight to read. Mary’s narration is so funny and quirky, the story of the whaling crew is completely engaging, and the local customs and gossip really are straight out of a comedy of manners. I gobbled up this book in one day, but I think I’ll need to come back to it and savor it again more slowly.
Title: Rush Oh!
Author: Shirley Barrett
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: March 22, 2016
Length: 368 pages
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley