Black Water by Barbara Henderson

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Published by Pokey Hat, an imprint of Cranachan Publishing, 2019.

Black Water is an exciting novella set in late 18th century Scotland. Barbara Henderson writes excellent historical fiction for children. I have previously enjoyed her novel Fir for Luck about the Highland Clearances. This time, her story is about smuggling and the Excisemen who try to prevent it.

13-year-old Henry, an apprentice Exciseman, narrates the story. His father is the Exciseman and is a formidable and serious man. Henry is desperate to please his father and win his admiration but his father pays him little attention and is abrupt and unapproachable. This makes for an interesting father/son dynamic.

The book is based on real events and real-life people and Barbara Henderson has drawn on historical records for detail, expertly evoking time and place. I particularly enjoyed the Scots dialect and sea-faring language and more than once found myself referring to the handy glossary at the back.

Black Water centres around the illicit activity onboard the schooner, Rosamund, which gets stranded in the Solway Firth. The smugglers are strong in number and heavily armed. The Excisemen, below on the shore, are at a disadvantage. Their mission to seize the contraband and apprehend the smugglers is fraught with danger: cannon fire, quicksand and a race against the tide. The action is tense and exciting. The scene when the horse gets stuck in the quicksand is particularly dramatic. Much of the story takes place under the cover of night or in the misty early morning half-light and this heightens the tension. The Excisemen’s mission is made even more difficult by the hostility of the locals, their deliberate acts of sabotage and their reluctance to cooperate with the law.

I liked how the story isn’t black and white. Barbara Henderson doesn’t firmly come down on the side of the Excisemen and the law. While explaining how smugglers illegally avoided paying taxes, she also presents the smugglers’ motives and justifications.

Another aspect of the story that I really enjoyed was the exaltation of song, poetry and the written word. Although Henry feels duty bound to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an Exciseman, he is drawn towards poetry and words. This pull between obligation and passion adds another interesting layer to the book.

Fast-paced and with peril at every turn, Black Water is a suspense-filled story of corruption, contraband and courage. 

Rating: 💙💙💙💙

Suitable for children aged 8+

Thank you to Cranachan Publishing for sending me this book to review. I reviewed it as part of the Black Water blog tour where author Barbara Henderson spoke to me about the importance of pace in children’s literature. You can read her guest post here.

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