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River Boy, by Anthony Hill


In the early 1880s, paddle steamers travelled the Australian river systems bringing supplies to, and taking produce from, inland properties. Nat, a 13-year-old farmworker, dreams of joining the crew of a paddle steamer. He can't believe his luck when, after a case of mistaken identity, he is asked to help out on a delivery run up the Murrumbidgee aboard the Lorelei.

Landlubber Nat has lots of skills to learn before he can earn the respect of the crew. As a non-swimmer, he also has to overcome his fear of the water. While Nat learns quickly on the journey upstream, his courage is tested during the return journey. As a storm begins, the Lorelei's barge, Niobe, is blown off course and the barge hand is injured. Nat is moved to the barge to replace the recovering crewman.

The storm worsens and the Niobe, with Nat and Lofty aboard, is caught by a tree. The barge comes adrift from the Lorelei and is dragged downstream until it becomes snagged and holed. As Lofty's leg is hurt, the task of patching the hole and saving the barge is left to Nat. Despite his fear, Nat leaps into the fast cold water with only a rope to support him. He manages to plug the hole and stop the flow just as the Lorelei comes to the rescue.

As the Lorelei returns to Echuca wharf, Nat knows that he has become a river man.

Discussion questions

  • Why do you think that Nat dreamed of becoming a river man? Why was it so easy for Nat to join the crew of the Lorelei?
  • What is a 'landlubber'? What skills did Nat need to learn before he could become a river boy?
  • Who was Davy Jones? Why did the Captain stress that his name was Dan, not Davy, Jones?
  • What did the barge, Niobe, carry on its way up the river? What did it bring down? Why did the Lorelei begin its journey in Echuca? Why do you think paddle steamers were so important in the 1800s?
  • How did Nat get along with the crew of the Lorelei? How and why did their attitudes towards Nat change?
  • What happened to Niobe that put Nat in such a dangerous position? What did Nat need to do to save the barge? How did he feel about it afterwards?

Classroom activities

  1. Ask students to write an extra chapter for River Boy. Students could, for example, focus on what happens when Nat goes back to see Uncle Silas and tells him about his new life.
  2. Ask your students to complete the River boy worksheet (PDF 1.4mb). In this activity, students design a new cover and write their own blurb for River Boy.
  3. Use the Song of the river (PDF 1.7mb) with your students to explore the shanty sung by the crew in River Boy.
  4. Are your students landlubbers? Encourage them to develop some nautical skills by researching, and learning how to tie, two different rope knots.
  5. Ask students, in small groups, to use the illustrations and text from River Boy to help them create a model of a paddle steamer and barge.
  6. Students can complete an engaging activity about the PS Enterprise by using the interactive below.

Book details

River Boy
by Anthony Hill. Illustrated by Donna Rawlins.

ISBN 1 876944 39 0
198mm x 130mm, 72pp
black and white illustrations