- Moonlite, by Garry Linnell. Michael Joseph. $34.99.
It is early in the last quarter of the 19th century and the "white people of Australia have no myths, no legends handed down to them by previous generations", writes Garry Linnell near the beginning of his galloping history of those times.
And so, in the manner of how most myths start, one is invented. Journalists and popular writers began re-making wretched, raggedy bearded, desperate criminals into "bushrangers", a term still today imbued with no small dollop of romance. There is Ned Kelly, of course, but others with colourful monikers such as "Mad Dog" Morgan and Captain Thunderbolt. Many hailed from Ireland and brought struggles from their homeland with them.
The most fascinating of all these bushrangers, according to Linnell, is another son of Erin. His name was Andrew George Scott and in the course of his short existence he was many things.
He was a preacher, a thief, a convict, a prison reform advocate and, finally, leader of a hapless gang of waifs whose last stand was outside Wagga Wagga. He too had his own exotic designation.
Scott called himself "Captain Moonlite", and he would meet his untimely end when hung from a prison gibbet.
Linnell knows how to tell a story. He recounts with gusto Scott's early forays in the Pacific and leads the reader into tales of his robbery in the goldfields, capture, escape, recapture and then prison romance. Scott develops a relationship with a fellow prisoner, James Nesbitt, and the two become lifelong companions. Gay bushrangers are an under-explored part of the national myth. Linnell makes the reader think about what other truths of those times might have been suppressed.
Linnell renders expressively the desperation of what was not really a romantic life at all. Moonlite and gang's last holdup seemed spurred by hunger and cold as much as anything.
Linnell admits to being captivated by Scott. I was less smitten. The man comes across as an egomaniac with an anger management problem, the sort of person you wouldn't want to meet the eyes of in a pub. Scott's partner, Nesbitt, is scarcely more agreeable.
Linnell's vivid prose kept me going long after I stopped caring for the Captain and his partner in both life and crime. He's an engaging narrator reminiscent in style of Peter Fitzsimons.
While I wouldn't necessarily want to read more about Moonlite, I'd happily read more from this deft storyteller.
- Gordon Peake's "Beloved Land", about Timor-Leste, won the ACT Book of the Year award. He is writing his next book about Papua New Guinea.