Daniel Rooke’s childhood is miserable; as a smart boy born to poor parents in eighteenth century England, doors eventually open for him but he constantly struggles to fit in. In 1788 he seizes the chance to go on a mission to New South Wales as an astronomer, hoping to finally break out of his position in the lowly marines and become a scientist. That doesn’t quite happen; instead, in his solitary makeshift observatory, Rooke forges a friendship with the Aborigines, one in particular, that has an astonishing effect on his worldview and brings into sharp focus the issues with British imperialism.
The Lieutenant is a short, quick read, but no less affecting for all that. The book is written in third person and the beginning went very quickly, which made me feel somewhat detached and a bit frustrated, but as soon as Rooke is in the war, I was immensely wrapped up in his story. His journey to Australia was outright fascinating. More than anything, it showed the arrogance of the British soldiers, convinced that the natives would immediately like what they had to bring, want to hang around them, and be grateful for their company even after they were forcibly captured! I was astonished. I knew this sort of thing happened in the Americas but it still made me so angry.
Luckily, Rooke shared my feelings, and I loved the friendship he shared with the native girl and his diligent attempts to learn their language for the sake of speaking to them, not to become famous like one of the other crew members. I really felt that he was trying to understand them and he treated them like the people that they were. He was just a really admirable, clever man, and even though I couldn’t entirely get inside his head, I got enough of his intentions to really like him, and his actions were above reproach as long as he knew what he was doing.
I did think the beginning and the end were brief and sort of disappointing and detached, but in my opinion the entire book was worth it for that great middle section when Rooke tries to learn about another culture without imposing his own Britishness on it. He’s clearly rebuked when he does. I was happy to learn that it was based on a true story and a soldier did attempt to learn the language from a young native girl, although the author says clearly it’s fiction and should not be taken as history. Even so, knowing that at least one man attempted to understand, rather than oppress and change, makes for a great story and reminds us that some people do buck the trend of history.
I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the publishers for review.