Paul Howarth’s debut novel Only Killers and Thieves is a gripping work of historical fiction. The story begins in 1885 and takes place in Central Queensland, Australia. The McBride family struggles to survive on the drought stricken land. Thus, from the start, the reader knows some hardship will befall the family dependent on a cattle operation for their livelihood.
Weaved into the plot is the tension between rival landowners, the indigenous population, settlers encroaching on native lands. But Howarth adds more. Only Killers and Thieves does more than give a glimpse at the past. This book reminds us how important it is to preserve an accurate history.
The McBride Boys
Billy is the elder. Sixteen at the start of the story. Tommy, 14, follows his lead. The third McBride child is Mary. Since the drought, most of the hands have gone. Arthur, a Mission raised black is the only reminder of a once productive operation. He is as much a mentor to Tommy as his father, McBride.
The only other help on the land is Joseph, a Kurrong. But Joseph leaves after the group finds the bodies of two Kurrong. The same two men the boys had recently seen alive chained behind the Native Police at the request of neighbor John Sullivan.
Soon after, tragedy strikes the homestead. The evidence seemingly points to Joseph. In the rush to get help for the gravely injured Mary, the choices begin. Once a path is chosen, the past cannot be undone. Tommy wants to head for the nearest town. The doc is there. But it is a two-hour ride.
Billy over rules him. Thus they ride toward the Sullivan holdings. Life changes forever.
Only Killers and Thieves
John Sullivan convinces Billy to alter the story of the evidence found at the homestead. Thus Billy tries to keep his younger brother out of the loop. But Tommy insists on participating. They become liars. Witnessing a sworn statement that a group of the Kurrong over ran their home. However, the downward spiral continues.
The McBride boys join the posse. Four white men and four Native Police comprise the entourage. The Kurrong are hunted. Then massacred. But Joseph is not among the group. Both teenagers take part. But the impact is not the same. Tommy has regrets. And questions. Why wasn’t Joseph with his people?
The division between the boys begins. Billy falls lockstep in with Sullivan and his view that all the blacks must be eliminated for the safety of the settlers. On the other hand, Tommy is truly a Doubting Thomas. He questions what really happened to his family. He questions himself. Then he seeks the truth and justice for the innocent.
Only Killers and Thieves is a work of fiction. But Howarth captures all the nuances of the time. The struggle between cultures. The fight to survive in a harsh environment. Furthermore, through the character of Tommy, Howarth displays how individuals must wrestle within themselves. Is there right from wrong? Is there a God? Or are we just specks in time?
This debut novel deserves much praise as does the author.