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Reviewed by Savarna Yang
Opening sentence
A gripping true story of danger and treasure, reviewed by Savarna Yang
July 22, 2022

After immigrating to Australia three years ago, Mary Jewell is on her way back to England with her new husband, Joseph – and a hidden fortune. Sewn into the hems of their clothes is gold from the mines – gold enough to buy them a house and land. They travel on the ship the General Grant with over eighty other passengers and sailors, and for a few days everything seems to be going well. No one discovers their undeclared gold. Mary makes good friends among the rest of the women in her cabin.

But then the ship goes off track in the fog and finds itself amid the treacherous rocks of the desolate Auckland Islands. Drifting blindly in the dark, the General Grant is sucked into the mouth of a cave and wrecked. ‘We were a ship in a stone bottle, rammed hard into the cave end.’ In the panic of the evacuation only a few people make it out of the wreck. The rest leave it too late.

The survivors manage to row to one of the islands and although it is virtually uninhabitable – just stones and dirt and grass – this is where they must find shelter. They count their number: fifteen. And of the fifteen there is only one woman – Mrs Jewell. ‘The men…now realised that they had a woman as cargo. Their faces showed their despair. They were trying to save themselves and a woman was a responsibility more than they could bear. Were they thinking then that my fast death in the freezing water would have been easier for all of us?’

As it becomes clear that rescue is a long way from coming – if at all – tension and conflict spread through the group. Can they all survive?

Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders is an exciting re-imagining of a historical tale shrouded in mystery. The blurb immediately captured my interest with its mentions of a shipwreck, one woman survivor, secrets and gold, and I couldn’t wait to read the actual story.

The novel is told in first person, which works really well as it brings you closer to Mrs Jewell straight away, in a way that other points of view may not have managed. Mrs Jewell is such a compelling character and after the first few chapters she begins to feel like a friend.

One scene I especially enjoyed was the part where Mrs Jewell fends off some seals who are charging towards her. It’s where you get a peek of the other side of her personality – fiery and feisty.

Sanders has also written another historical young adult novel, Displaced, which was published last year. I enjoyed Displaced a lot but I think that Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant is even better! The characters have more spirit and interest and I really felt their emotions come through in the writing: ‘I had been hungry before, and cold, but not like this. I had been thrashed by my pa, been lonely, been frightened. I had sat by my dead mother’s body knowing she would never kiss me again. I had travelled as an independent woman around the world to find a life I could call my own and I had always saved myself. But this was different to anything that had gone before, anything I could have imagined.’

I’d never heard of the General Grant shipwreck story before reading Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant. It so needed to be told! As soon as I finished the story I wanted to go and look for the rumoured treasure myself! Sanders has created a gripping but realistic novel that will not let the tale be forgotten.

– Savarna is 14 years old and lives in Dunedin.
Author & Illustrator: Cristina Sanders
Publisher: The Cuba Press