The collie dog slipped silently through the starlit night. She could smell sheep in the valley, hundreds of them. She knew what she had to do, and she had to do it quickly and quietly. Behind her in the bushes her master, James Mackenzie, lay in wait...
This is the true story of New Zealand's most notorious sheep-stealer and his loyal working dog. More than 160 years ago, James Mackenzie and his black-and-white collie, Friday, secretly herded 1,000 stolen sheep through rugged, unmanned mountain passes. A statue of the pair stands today in the heart of Mackenzie Country in the South Island.
Raymond McGrath's quirky illustrations bring a unique flavour to this picture story book.
Every time I visit the Mackenzie Country, somebody is sure to ask me if I know how the area got its name, and then the story is retold - always with variations but with the same clear admiration for a man who went from colourful criminal to folk legend. Rogues make great heroes; from Robin Hood to Ned Kelly, Cruella de Vil to Cersei Lannister, they capture the imagination of their audiences because everybody loves a villain. And it does not matter whether that villain is a historical character or simply the creation of an author or film scriptwriter; the attraction is in the adventure itself and the charisma of the anti-hero.
When I looked at the book cover, I thought I was about to read a story designed for pre-schoolers. But as soon as I started reading, I realised that this was no young child's book. Instead of reading it to Miss Two, who would have been far too young for it, I asked Miss Eight to read it with me. She is more than capable of reading to me, so accepted the challenge with delight. She knew nothing about the Mackenzie legend so I let her read to me first and then we discussed it. She is a pretty capable reader for her age but still needed help with half a dozen words, so it was pitched at the right level.
Miss Eight was halfway through the book before she realised Mackenzie was a criminal. By then she was hooked on the story and ended up reading right to the end in one sitting. She described it as a good read because it was not like other historical novels that put in too much information and make you want to stop reading because it is so boring - this book was full of action and the "boring stuff" took the form of a single page information sheet at the very end. Despite her preference for the historical information to be minimal, she was so engrossed in the story by the time she had got to the end that she read this page too.
The story is nicely woven around the facts but with an emphasis on Friday, James Mackenzie's collie dog, rather than the sheep rustler himself. This takes the focus off the fact that he was breaking the law and manages to give a sense of the way people lived in high country New Zealand in the 19th century. Miss Eight was interested that she learned a little about the Scottish settlers in the South Island, and said she would probably read the book several times more now that she knows where the Mackenzie Country is. We checked it out on GOOGLE maps - she went to Canterbury a couple of years ago so now has a better idea of where it was set.
Mr Ten had been listening to us as we discussed the story. He picked the book up and leafed through, and said he would probably enjoy reading it too. He also approved of the illustrations; they are detailed and manage to evoke the spirit of the wild high country through a combination of subtle natural tones and deceptively simple outlines. He and his sister both loved the idea of Friday's shoes; the illustration captured this image perfectly. It added a humorous aspect to the story, making it attractive to the young reader.
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