A Commonwealth of Thieves Review
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A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia is the latest foray into history by Thomas Keneally. This time heís shifted his attention (and his attention to detail) to the beginning of the nation of Australia. The continent had been discovered almost two hundred years before it was settled by Europeans. Keneally sets out to tell the tale of the first white men to try and make it home.

In 1786, the prisons of Great Britain were busting at the seams. They were so full that the government had been forced to find new ways to house all of them. One of the solutions was to put the convicts on boats and park the boats in the bays and harbors of England. Over time, the boats began to fill, and hiring more became a very expensive means to the end. A group of Parliament members decided to take the next logical step of shipping the prisoners on boats to other countries. It was a plan that had some success by sending them to Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia in colonies. After Great Britain lost the war in America, though, those ports were off the table. Enter the continent of Australia.

In his typical style Keneally loads the reader with details upon details of the people who make up the story. He pulls his information from primary source documents like letters and journal of the sailors, soldiers, prisoners, and families who made the voyage. In many respects, the voyage to Australia mirrors the early sailings to America. The members of the voyage were ravaged by sickness from the bad food, there were crew members lost at sea, and boats were damaged almost to the point of not being able to float.

Keneallyís style is a bit dry and thatís going to turn away some readers. He never quite gets the story up to the tempo that it seems to want. This is a story that should feel large and epic when itís being readóbut it never makes it to that level in this version of the telling. Part of the problem is all the attention given to details. In this case, it draws the readerís attention away from the bigger picture.

Overall, this a solid history book that does, in the end, tell a compelling story. But it falls short of some of the great history thatís being written right now, like Adams vs. Jefferson or Founding Brothers. And thatís too badóbecause the story of settling a continent with convicted men and women should be filled with drama.

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