Structured around real events, Shearston’s book tries to see the man behind the legend. Throughout we are taken to imagined meetings between Hall and his son who is being brought up by Hall’s estranged wife.
Those meetings help to humanise Hall, who in the past, depending on the source, has usually been turned into either a wronged farmer driven to a life of crime, or demonised as a ruthless callous thug.
The former view attributes his waywardness to persecution by local law enforcers (the traps), who through wrongful imprisonment and by burning down his home, contributed to the breakdown of his marriage, the loss of relationship with his son, and drove him to crime as a way to survive and fight back against the injustices done to him.
The latter sees him as a willing participant in an audacious robbery that still rates as one of the most profitable crimes in Australia’s history; after which he was briefly jailed, but soon released without charge. His wife DID leave him. His home WAS burned down. But that was after he’d already chosen the criminal path that saw him join forces with a progression of accomplices to conduct robberies, take over towns and eventually led to murder (though Hall himself reportedly killed no none).
This book starts in the last year of the Hall gang’s short but prolific crime spree, when a coach robbery goes wrong and one of the police guards (Edmund Parry) is killed. Therefore some of the major and quite spectacular incidents of Hall’s career don’t get a mention in Shearston’s novel.
But the book isn’t intended to be a catalogue of increasingly audacious exploits that could glorify the man and his accomplices. Game presents a sad image of a man longing for change: leaving his life of crime, winning the love of his son and regaining a life free of pursuit.
It shows the grim reality of a life continually on the run, of hiding out in the bush, in caves, or on occasion in the homes (or barns) of sympathisers.
The latter increasingly rarely, as rewards for Hall’s capture increase, combined with heavier penalties for those giving aid make it harder to know who can be trusted.
At times I felt sections of the book were clumsily constructed. Here and there I had to back track through a sentence or two because the first reading didn’t read “right” – the words didn’t immediately flow. That might have been the outcome of trying to give the language a period relevance, with a cadence suited to the era.
But despite that difficulty, I really enjoyed the book. Some of that enjoyment came from the familiarity of the settings. Many of Hall’s crimes were carried out around my local area and I know the towns and landscape referred to in the book quite well, so it was easy to picture it all.
In fact, when Gloria and I were planning to move from Sydney out into the country, it was partly Ben Hall that drew us to our current home town. I’d been reading about his life, and wanted to see some of the places he’d frequented. Our current home is in a town we discovered during that trip.