Cover Image: The Boy with Blue Trousers

The Boy with Blue Trousers

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I've tried to pick up read this book several times but halfway through I am still finding it very hard to stay engaged - I am conceding that this story just isn't for me at this time, even though the general premise and the writing were very appealing.
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The Boy With Blue Trousers set in China and Australia during the 1850s is highly engaging historical fiction. From paddy fields to goldfields, this is the story of two young women who, for differing reasons, are escaping one life in search for a new one. When the rules of two culturally different societies force these women to rise above the life often dictated to them at the time. 

There are some interesting issues going on, testament to Carol certainly having done her homework. With themes of race, family, societal expectations, gender status, starting anew - there is much on offer for the reader. I very much enjoyed both the European and Chinese gender role descriptions for both male and females as they play out between the four leading couples. I also found Carol’s writing of place and time to be very evocative - whether it be a village in China or the Victorian desert - the reader is transported easily through the detail and imagery provided. 

Both female leads are given over half the novel to develop their characters which works well. As Little Cat and Violet face their own dilemmas, you are given a complete picture of their motivations and struggles. Although I appreciated Violet’s story, I was not a fan and far more enjoyed Little Cat with both the literal and inner journey she found herself on. There are also many well developed secondary characters who play crucial roles, even if in the initial stages, they play an important role in the story as a whole. I particularly enjoyed Young Wu and how cleverly Carol gave us crucial insight into his thoughts that assisted us appreciating his evolution throughout the tale. 

If you are looking for a unique immersion into a classic goldrush story, then The Boy With Blue Trousers will certainly capture your attention. With an in depth look into two cultures history surrounding the event, I definitely recommend this book. 

‘This thought threatened to bring tears to her eyes but she squeezed the lids tight and fought them back. She could not afford to draw attention to herself. She needed to blend in, to become just another boy in blue trousers bound for New Gold Mountain.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.
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‘They had been friends of a sort once.’

The 19th century goldfields of Australia provide the setting for this absorbing novel. Two very different young women escaping from their pasts and the roles which society has decreed for them.  The family of Mo Lin Fa (known as Little Cat) has a small silk producing business in the Pearl River Delta of China.  Her brother is to leave China for the Australian goldfields, where the money he will make will help the family grow their business. 

‘She could only hear the scorn in their voices.  ‘Women don’t leave our shores!’ said Elder Brother.’

But it is Little Cat who will leave China.  Disguised as a male, she flees for her life after an incident results in the death of an important clan leader.  In Robe, South Australia, Violet Hartley has fled from scandal in England to take up the role of a governess to two children. Violet is aged twenty-five and wants to find a husband and security.

The paths of Violet and Little Cat cross in Robe where the Chinese are landed.  The Chinese must walk overland to the goldfields and Violet, dismissed from her position as governess, joins the group. Violet has her eye on Lewis Thomas, the bullock driver who will accompany the Chinese to the goldfields. 

Will Violet get ‘her’ man?  Will Little Cat find a new life?  The son of the clan leader has followed Little Cat to Australia, determined to avenge his father. Violet is suspicious of the delicate looking Chinese boy, and suspicion turns into jealousy.

I enjoyed this novel.  While both women were strong and were trying to forge their own paths, I admit that I much preferred the character of Little Cat.  Ms Jones has taken characters from very different cultural settings and brought them both to life in nineteenth century Australia.  While Little Cat and Violet are the major characters, there are several well-developed secondary characters who are an important part of the story.  

The story combines both adventure and romance in a well-developed historical setting.

Highly recommended.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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In depth ★★★★

The Boy with Blue Trousers is an absorbing historical read, highlighting women's incredible endurance and strength in forging their own paths. Told between a silk producing village on China's Pearl River Delta and the South Australian township of Robe in the 1800s, the novel is an unconventional, feminist take on the Australian gold rush, with a cracking dose of adventure and romance. Readers should note triggers for attempted suicide, murder by battery and sexual assault.

Eighteen year old Little Cat bucks against the way daughters are supposed to behave, her bravery and temper finding release in martial arts, despite disdain from her twin brother and his friend Young Wu. But when her skills save her from a worse fate, she must embark on a voyage that will test her courage beyond measure. At the same time, Violet Hartley - banished from tutoring the ton's children in London - is stationed with the Wallace family in Robe as a governess. When boatloads of 'Celestials' begin arriving, bound for the Victorian goldfields, she has no idea how they will change her life, and her quest to win the heart of bullocky Lewis Thomas. The novel is ultimately a story of how these women try to survive, and a commentary on the pressures and expectations women of all nationalities experienced.

Jones is equally skilled at evoking the South Australian and Victorian desert as she is a small silkworm village in China, crafting neatly polished sentences that drip with stunning imagery. The world of the novel is one to become fully immersed in; our two narratives don't intersect until well past the halfway point, but this allows us to see both Little Cat and Violet as whole people, and fully understand their lives and motivations when they do encounter one another.

I was surprised by the romance of this story - it becomes far more prevalent towards the end - but also charmed by it. Jones deftly blends the adventure/chase elements with the romance aspects, and the balance worked well for me. However, the romance never detracts from the point Jones is making about how constrained women's lives were - while Little Cat aspires to live a spinster's life, we watch Violet pursue Lewis with a determination that would have been unseemly at the time. Both are following unconventional paths, both are dealt difficult hands in life and and both refuse to quit. I was impressed that neither is a saint either - both women stand as flawed, real characters.

I also appreciated the complexity of Young Wu's character. Initially I found him unbearable, but Jones gives us an insight into his perspective, and I enjoyed watching his worldview evolve throughout the story.

Some of the novel's greatest moments are when cultures collide - I was intrigued by the way Jones portrayed English/Australian perceptions of the Chinese migrants (especially Lewis verus Violet's reactions), while the Chinese characters rarely think of the English/Australian behaviours beyond what they must to survive. This imbalance is one of the many subtle ways Jones shows the power dynamics and divides at the time.

Overall this is a fascinating, immersive delve into the goldrush experience, and a wholly satisfying read.

Recommended if you liked: Into the World

I received an advanced copy of The Boy with Blue Trousers from Harper Collins Australia in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
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Last year I read The Concubine’s Child by Carol Jones and fell in love with her writing. Her latest release, The Boy with Blue Trousers, is equally as captivating. It’s like she’s gently carved out her own new sub-genre: cultural historical fiction.

“‘It takes a hundred rebirths to ride in the same boat, a thousand to share the same pillow.’ So it was said. One day it would be their time. Even if it took ten thousand thousand years, one day they would find each other again.”

There are two entirely different heroines within this novel. It was a bit like taking a road trip with Mulan and Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair) – two characters from stories I highly revere. The balancing of two vastly different characters such as Little Cat and Violet was very well done by the author. Violet herself was not particularly likeable all the time, but she was plucky and resourceful, traits that were required if you were going to carve out a new life in the colonies as a single young woman. Little Cat was beyond brave, I loved following her journey, which had a suspenseful aspect to it that kept me fairly on the edge of my seat. There is a wealth of both Chinese and early Australian gold rush history to be discovered within this novel. I enjoyed this story immensely and highly recommend it.
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Thank you to Netgalley and HarperCollins Australia for the opportunity to read and review another fabulous book from Carol Jones.

What could be the connection between a teenage girl living in the Pearl River Delta of China in 1856 and that of a young English woman 25 years old in the same era living in Robetown Sth Australia. The reader will see that both are not your usual compliant females of this era, rather they are feisty, independent and have great determination. I loved and identified with both of them. This is a time so difficult for such women, who did not want to be chained to a man for a life of servitude, (in Little Cat's case the husband's family as well) with little future other than producing children and in many cases watching them die in childhood. 

Little Cat (Mo Lin Fa) along with her siblings works hard in the family's small silk business for which in her designated duties she rebels against. Along with her twin brother (Mo Wing Yong) she practices Martial Arts, which is frowned on now possibly due to her age and her diminutive size compared to her now larger brother. Big Wu is the clan leader with son known as Young Wu. Without understanding why, Young Wu, an only child finds himself strongly attracted to the twins and is forever seeking their company.  An incident occurs during a festival where at the river a rescue takes place by Little Cat, her brothers and Young Wu. This incident starts a chain of events involving Little Cat who ultimately finds herself on a ship with a different name to the Australian Goldfields.

On the other side of the world in Robetown, Violet Hartley is a governess teaching French to two children James and Alice. Violet has travelled to Australia to take up this position after a scandal involving her previous employer in England. Violet already 25 both parents are dead and she is fully aware that time is running out for her to find a husband and security for herself but not any man, rather one with money as Violet loves fine clothes and has desires to be more of a "lady". Considering where she is living now on a sheep and cattle farm, a backwater and little opportunity to meet men of good standing it's only when a particular attractive incentive presents itself and subsequent events with Lewis Thomas, the bullock driver who arrives at the homestead that Violet finds herself yet again dismissed from her position. With only a small amount of coin in her pocket she now realises that a further change is necessary, away from the small town gossip and so she ventures on the overland journey to the goldfields along with the Chinese including Little Cat.
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It's 1856, and in the Pearl River Delta village of Sandy Bottom, feisty 18yo Little Cat is considering becoming a self-combed woman; putting her own hair up to proclaim herself a spinster who will not be beholden to any man. But her life takes a dramatic turn when she comes to the attention of the village's most powerful man, and she finds herself on her way to the New Gold Mountain (the Victorian goldfields) disguised as a man.

Meanwhile, in Robetown, a small coastal settlement in South Australia, Violet Hartley has arrived from London to take up the position of governess to the two Wallace children. It's a welcome escape from the pressures and gossip of her old life in London, but Violet is always on the lookout for the next best thing. She has an idea that Welsh bullocky Lewis Thomas might be part of a better future and sets out to catch his eye, at the expense of her attention to the children. Violet is dismissed at the same time as a ship arrives from Hong Kong, offloading hundreds of Celestials to avoid paying the ten-pound tax imposed by the Victorian government on all Chinamen arriving in that state.

Thus Violet joins Lewis' expedition to lead the Chinese workers to the Victorian goldfields, where she hopes to find either a new position or a husband, or both. Along the way, Lewis takes a trouble-prone young Chinese man under his wing, making Violet jealous. Perhaps her feelings for Lewis are stronger than she realised?

This story is told in turn from the POV of the two female characters, and I enjoyed them equally. Both women are strong and well-developed, and it's easy to empathise with their situations. There is a lot of action and sufficient tension to keep the plot moving along at a good pace. Where I think the novel faltered was where the two stories - and two characters - came together. It seemed there was a sudden level of enmity that came from nowhere. 

I also found it a little difficult to get involved in the beginning of Little Cat's story because I couldn't keep track of the minor characters, who were referred to by their names, or by their positions and sometimes just by endearments or nicknames. A list of characters at the start of the book may have helped with this. But once the action started to move away from Sandy Bottom, this problem disappeared and I was engrossed for the rest of the story.
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Seventeen-year-old Little Cat and her twin, Second Brother knew the silk was their future – but more was needed. The mulberry trees were plentiful, the silk woven from the cocoons kept them busy from dawn to dusk. But their father needed more land. The family adjacent to their property, wealthy landowner Wu, could lease them more. Little Cat was best friends with the daughter, Siu Wan – but lifestyles would go the way the parents and elders wanted them to…

When Little Cat was put in the path of destruction, her only choice was to flee from her hometown in Kwangtung. Second brother had been planning to head to the goldfields in Australia to make money for the family. But it would be Little Cat who boarded the ship and disguised as a boy with the new name of Strong Arm, she headed for her new life, not aware that someone intent on killing her was following. 

The arrival at Robetown in South Australia; the walk behind a bullock team with more than two hundred other Chinese; the goldfields of Victoria – all held dangers for Strong Arm. But it was Violet Hartley, governess from Robetown who had joined the journey, who concerned her the most. The bullock driver, Lewis Thomas, was a kind man but what could he really do in a dispute of cultures…

The Boy With Blue Trousers by Aussie author Carol Jones is an excellent historical fiction novel which is set in Southern China and southern Australia (South Australia and Victoria) in the 1850s. I wasn’t taken with Violet at all, but I enjoyed Little Cat’s feisty character a lot. The difference in cultures is vast; the need for vengeance in the Chinese families, even if the person killed was in the wrong is horrible. Hopefully things have changed! Highly recommended.

With thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for my digital ARC to read in exchange for an honest review.
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