Although there is drama and some dark moments in the story, The Goldseekers is never overwhelmed by them. This is a novel which a good reader as young as six (my six year old enjoyed it greatly) would enjoy and gain from, while an older, reluctant reader right up to adulthood, will be taken by its compelling plot, its rich recasting of history, and its positive morality.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Greg Bastian
May 2006, ISBN 020720084X, Paperback, $15.95aud
It’s the mid 1850s and young Miju and her older brother Kai are working in a NSW goldfield to try and save enough money to go home to their village in Korea. The children have arrived at the goldfield by way of a market garden in Melbourne where they were stolen to bolster the small work force, but the conditions were so bad, and the owner so corrupt, that the children fled, excited by rumours of gold and the hopes of an early passage back. The story is told from the point of view of Sam, another boy working on the goldfield with his father Bill. Sam is oddly drawn to the delicate Miju, whose name means a ‘small bird that skims across the water collecting tiny insects.’ Although Kai and Miju are alone on the goldfield, he and Miju are only 13 and 9 respectively, and come up against a great deal of prejudice and hatred from the other miners, who are not only prejudice, but criminally aggressive bullies of the worst kind.
As the reader follows Sam’s attempts to understand the source of the hatred, and to help Miju and Kai in their attempts to get back home, the reader is treated to a rich helping of Australian gold rush history. Without being too dry to engage a young reader’s attention, Bastian provides a great deal of detail about the processes of gold mining in the nineteenth century:
With no fuss, each member of the team assumes the role to which they are best suited. Toby being the strongest and most experienced, becomes the principal digger while Bill barrows the washdiret to the water’s edge and helps Sam shovel it into the sifting cradle. Mister Foon and Kai make their way back to town and begin gathering up all the tools and equipment they will need. And Miju chooses the best place for a camp and sets about boiling two billies, one for green tea and the other for black tea. (128)
This is an uplifting story about overcoming fear and prejudice, and about the way children can often see past the differences that polarise and frighten adults. Sam grows through the story as he begins to understand the nature of the human beast, but it is his father who really learns and grows, as a result of Sam’s prodding and tutorage:
Again he is caught up in a crippling moral dilemma: he kknows his boy is right, that the fair and equitable thing to do is for all six parties to go together to the Gold Commissioner’s office and fill out a multiple claim. That way, if there is as much gold in the claim as he thinks there is, six people will be rich instead of just one. But he also has to consider himself and Sam and the rest of the family. (96)
Kai too, begins as the older, wiser character, but ends up learning from his sister’s innate wisdom as she benefits from the cross cultural influence and overcomes hardship:
Kai glances down at his little sister as she tucks the puppy inside her rough cotton jacket. He is surprised by her open defiance of his wishes. Lately he has noticed an ever-increasing independence in her. At home his authority would never be questioned in this way. (23)
Although there is drama and some dark moments in the story, The Goldseekers is never overwhelmed by them. This is a novel which a good reader as young as six (my six year old enjoyed it greatly) would enjoy and gain from, while an older, reluctant reader right up to adulthood, will be taken by its compelling plot, its rich recasting of history, and its positive morality. There are many moments of tenderness, between Miju and her brother, between Miju and her little dog Ah-Poo, between Sam and his father, and perhaps above all, in the lightest of ways, between Sam and Miju. One imagines the story continuing beyond its pages as the characters continue to grow and develop once they leave the mining world behind. This is a lovely, moving and very edifying novel which, as a parent as much as a critic, I can recommend heartily.