Book Review: Mrs Jewell and the wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders – a haunting tale of shipwreck and survival

Who isn’t fascinated by survival stories? I mean look at all those Survivor series on TV. But Survivor doesn’t dump its contestants in a locality like the Auckland Islands – windswept and rugged, and at 360 km south of New Zealand, inhospitable to say the least. In her latest book, Cristina Sanders explores the true story of one of New Zealand’s most intriguing shipwrecks and the fate of the fifteen survivors who washed ashore there.

In 1866, the General Grant was sailing from Australia to Britain, carrying assorted cargo including a quantity of gold as well as some of the miners who had worked for it. Among them, Joseph Jewell, is planning to use his bundle of nuggets to buy a holding in Devon and build a future. He is recently married and his young wife Mary, the Mrs Jewell of the title, the only female survivor. But before we get to that, the novel describes Mary making friends with the other families on board, the wives and their children, while Joseph works his passage as a seaman.

This sets the scene for the terrible events of the shipwreck as the General Grant is driven irrevocably towards cliffs and sucked into a cave which cripples the ship and causes it to sink. If it hadn’t been dark, if there wasn’t such a swell, the lifeboats might have been launched in time to save more of those onboard. Cristina Sanders brings the horror of the situation to life and you’re there with Mary as she is pushed overboard by Joseph and dragged into one of the lifeboats, while around her the women and children she’d got to know are lost at sea.

It’s almost a relief when the ‘lucky’ fifteen make land. But now the real work begins – the fight for survival. With very little food salvaged and biting cold, the fifteen not only battle the elements to stay alive, but also despair and pessimism. And Mary, the only woman, as well as young and attractive, feels the horror of her situation, particularly as her husband, hampered by depression, withdraws from her, leaving her to the predatory glances and overtures of the miner, Bill Scott.

Mrs Grant and the wreck of the General Grant is unflinching in its retelling of what might have happened, based on a load of research and a few letters recovered from survivors. The book includes a picture of the Grants in their hand-stitched sealskin clothing – the seals are vital for food as well. It’s either seal meat or shellfish and the energy expended to stalk, kill, butcher and cook the unappetising mammals is all there for the reader. Over the year and a half the survivors remain on their island, they get quite proficient at feeding themselves, building huts and expand their diet. But Mary can’t help wondering, will they ever be rescued?

We had all been living so long in such danger that our group fermented in a broth of obligations and duties and cares as we got through each day. All the tensions, each disappointment simmered; we lived so bound to each other and slept all packed together every night.

You get some intense scenes – the battle to start their first fire with a handful of matches and damp kindling will have you chewing your knuckles. And the book explores the way leadership shifts as the old hierarchies seem no longer relevant. Mr Brown, the first mate, struggles to stay sane and it’s the miner James Teer, Mary’s lifeboat rescuer, who helps them pull together. The characters of the survivors are reflected in the way they each respond to events large and small, while the thought of all that gold lost on the ship taunts them.

Mary is a well-rounded character and engaging narrator, dealing with a multitude of situations and emotions, as well as expressing a watchfulness around the motives of the others. The writing is brilliant – evocative and immediate, and brings the situation to life beautifully. Its a great story and there are scenes here I shall never forget. Mrs Jewell and the wreck of the General Grant gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: Jerningham by Cristina Sanders

Cristina Sanders has done an immense amount of research to recreate the first years of colonial settlement in Wellington with her debut novel, Jerningham. Starting off in 1839, the story follows newly arrived Arthur Lugg, an imaginary character, through whose eyes we meet a bunch of the key players in the colony, particularly Colonial William Wakefield and his loose cannon of a nephew, Jerningham Wakefield. They’re the down-under representatives of the New Zealand Company, which sold land that wasn’t exactly theirs to sell. So it’s up to the colonel and his nephew to make it happen.

There are a number of story threads here which help to build a picture of what it was like for the early settlers arriving in a promising new colony, expecting a plot of land on which to start their new life. We all know the story: how Maori were given items ranging from nails to guns to blankets for land – but was the land to be shared or bought outright? And then the ships came, bringing wave upon wave of hopeful new settlers ready to roll up their sleeves and rebuild England’s green and pleasant land.

The story follows the difficult relationship between the Wakefields and Governor Hobson who was pushing through the Treaty of Waitangi, to events building up to the Wairau Affray several years later. Arthur Lugg, first working for Colonel Wakefield as a procurement officer, is a witness to it all as well as a friend and minder to Jerningham who it seems can charm Lugg into anything.

There are some wonderfully evocative scenes as the two travel to Wanganui (as it was spelt then); the river, the bush and the friendly local Maori are all described in detail. Jerningham has his own mini empire, trading with whalers and Maori alike. There’s lots of wine, women and song wherever Jerningham (still barely 20) holes up.

I enjoyed meeting Charles Heaphy – I’ve always loved his stylised watercolours of the country he explored – who becomes a particular friend of Lugg’s. Meanwhile Arthur has his own personal trials, disappointment in love, losing his thumb and almost his life, a struggle with his own personal demons. Somewhat naïve, he fails to see how much he is manipulated by Jerningham.

And behind the scenes the machinations of the New Zealand Company, the governor and the treaty – much of it on morally and legally shaky ground. We get our fair share of earthquakes too.

At the heart of the story is Jerningham, the charmer; a young man of immense talent, if only he could use it wisely. He’s a wild boy but also has the knack for seeing the country as it is, falling into easy friendships with Maori, even daring to sit down to korero (talk) with the powerful chief Te Rauparaha.

Cristina Sanders tells it with plenty of factual detail and colour – what it’s like living in a raupo whare, the basic food (lots of pork and potatoes), a storm at sea, encountering Maori and their way of life for the first time. The workings of the men with power, the greed and the determination. It all makes for a fascinating read for anyone interested in the early years of New Zealand, colonisation or issues of empire. It reminds me why I love historical fiction so much – you can learn a lot about a period and place all wrapped up in a darn good story. It’s an impressive debut and well recommended – a four star read from me.