A historical novel of survival, set in the world of Australia’s infamous “blackbirding” trade.
Mel Milo, the son of King Metafet, grows up in an increasingly volatile Samoa as Britain, America, and Germany all aggressively compete to become the sole trader for the island. With promises of prosperity, the king accepts the offer of a European trader to take Mel to Australia for work, guaranteeing Metafet that his son will be returned “within one year.” The proposition proves to be a scam, and Mel is instead driven into forced labor on a rural sugar cane farm, where the traders rule as “owners and masters.” In the 19th century, this was an example of “blackbirding,” a widespread practice of tricking and kidnapping indigenous people to make them work far away from their homeland. Later, Mel is taken to work for sheep farmer and “squatter” William Phillips, who takes a paternal fondness to Mel and actively tries to right the wrongs of his terrible imprisonment. As years of tragedy and hardship pass, Mel finally achieves some independence as he carves out his own life in Australia. Readers might have benefited from greater exploration of Mel’s time on the sugar cane farm, as this aspect of his story is mostly glossed over, limiting readers’ ability to acknowledge Mel’s desperation for freedom. However, Foster shows an acute awareness of the way that colonization has decimated the cultural and spiritual identities of indigenous communities, including those of Samoa. Importantly, she pairs Mel’s narrative with that of a native Aborigine named Joe, exploring aboriginal traditions and cultural practices in order to emphasize how much Mel lost because of his abduction and long captivity.
A unique story that illuminates the many injustices of an understudied period in colonial history.