Blood in the Dust (2019) – Bill Swiggs

Title: Blood in the Dust
Author: Bill Swiggs
Publication date: 2019
Publishers: Jonathan Ball Publishers/Bonnier Zaffre
Star rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer: I was kindly sent a copy of this novel by Jonathan Ball Publishers in exchange for an honest review.

Between 1852 and 1861 a massive gold rush enticed thousands of immigrants from Europe, America, China and New Zealand to flock to the Australian Outback in the hopes of digging up the gold that would change their lives forever. They left their jobs both skilled and unskilled to dig in appalling conditions with a very slim chance of making a fortune. Meanwhile the Australian government was forced to reassess the new infrastructure that was building up around the diggings, to deal with the massive influx of people coming in to the country and to simultaneously cope with the shortages in labor outside of mining. More and more police were also required in order to maintain law and order on the roads as guards escorting gold bullion were being attacked and robbed by mercenaries and rogue bush-rangers. A sense of lawlessness and hopelessness hung over the small make-shift communities that suffered from overcrowding, illness and dangerous mining conditions.

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In order to maintain control the government began issuing Miner’s Licenses, and would often go out to the numerous diggings in order to collect the tax needed to hold said licenses. If miners didn’t have their licenses or couldn’t pay for their existing ones they were arrested, and after a while the miners began protesting which led to several fatal clashes between the police and the mining communities. The Miner’s License was responsible for the entire ‘Gold Rush’ experience. It epitomized it and led to a mass migration, colonial democracy, immigration of British Trade unionism and a development of racially discriminating policies which ultimately led to the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act. *

In Bill Swiggs’ novel Toby and Patrick O’Rourke are young brothers living with their parents on a cattle ranch in the Australian outback. It’s 1853, and they live a simple and happy life. Despite terrible droughts and struggles with money they always manage to stay positive. Their father owns a massive herd of cattle which he plans to sell at the next auction a few towns away, and which will hopefully assist in the farm’s financial predicament. None of this ends up happening however as the family are attacked on their farm in broad daylight by a dangerous bush-ranger named Warrigal Anderson. This very shocking event leaves the boys orphaned and their farm in danger of being swallowed up by a ruthless local businessman who goes out of his way to sabotage the boys’ attempt to save their home.

On the other side of the ocean Frank Hocking and his wife Maree, and daughters Annie and Betty have boarded a ship from England to seek their fortune in Australia. After almost eight months at sea and a terrible tragedy the family find themselves on unfamiliar soil living among the hundreds of miners camping out in the dirt. On the road to the little makeshift town of tents called Ballarat they meet up with the O’Rourke brothers who have similar dreams of making it rich. The Hockings and O’Rourke’s find common ground in their personal tragedies and decide to join forces as they set up a new life for themselves among the desperate and lawless.

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Swiggs’ describes life on the diggings with such raw abandon that the grime on the sweat stained bodies can almost be tasted. The twist of fate that brought these two unlikely families together ensures a sense of normalcy for those left behind as a romance blossoms between Toby and Annie, and they become united not just in friendship. Two years later however their whole world will once again be turned upside down when another tragedy befalls the family, and Toby is forced to come face to face with the dangerous Anderson who is still on the loose.

This is an incredibly poignant story for those wishing to know more about the Gold Rush experienced in Australia, in terms of the living conditions, daily bouts of violence and desperation that affected the ordinary citizens who bravely abandoned their old lives in the hopes of seeking something greater. At times Swiggs tends toward the melodramatic, and I would have much preferred a bit more factual information, however that being said, Swiggs’ sparked an interest in me and I spent a considerable amount of time researching this particular era in Australia’s history. I am also a huge fan of the western, as well as the human condition and this novel was a bit of both. A beautifully written original novel by an author I hope to read more from.

  • Please note that most of this factual information was sourced from the New South Wales government website www.migrationheritage.nsw.gov.au

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