Warning: this tale involves grave-digging, tea-dipped treasure maps, and naughty school boys. Read at your peril.
Norman Jorgensen is best known for his role as an award-winning children’s book author. But outside of Australia he’s known as the Chief of Mischief, as proven by his track record for filling young boys’ minds with a grand sense of adventure … however misguided.
But wait, what happened? It all started one year with a trip to Cocos and Christmas Islands for Book Week. On that trip, Norman was reminded of the book A Pirate of Exquisite Mind by Diana and Michael Preston, about the British explorer and pirate William Dampier. It was on his final voyage to explore WA’s coast that Dampier was supposed to have plundered around $50 million worth of gold. When he and his crew were shipwrecked after cruising through Cocos, Christmas and Reunion Islands, the treasure was gone, which is why Norman believes that it could still be somewhere on the Cocos Islands.
However, we weren’t the only ones he told this tale to.
The small boys at the school he visited were also privy to this information. Norman may have let slip that the best place to bury treasure is in – that’s right – a graveyard. Why? As Norman states, he’d figured that, ‘people are unlikely to dig up graves – unless they are small boys, that is.’
‘While I was with still with them in class, I drew up a fictional map of the cemetery on the island and marked an X 100 paces from the north, west and east tip of the island that juts into the sea. It marked an existing ancient grave with a wooden marker with the inscription worn off.
‘The next day, the principal called me to her office. One teacher had complained that her kids were spending far too long creating their own authentic-looking pirate maps, colouring them by dipping them in tea, rolling them and burning the ends, and generally making it impossible for her to complete the curriculum before the next school holidays. I was about to leave, duly chastened, when another teacher arrived to say a parent had caught my two favourite boys from that class armed with shovels, pacing out the cemetery ready to dig up the buried treasure. And taking smaller paces than I do, they had identified the wrong grave and started to dig up a recent one.’
While digging up graves is not recommended, I think we can at least admire the boys’ tenacity.
Norman also mentioned the inspiration for the characters in his books. In particular, he mentioned Red’s mother, Mary Read, who runs a hotel in his hometown of Broome, and maintains order with the aid of a cricket bat. Norman based this character on his mother Barbara: ‘Barb is gentle, kind and sentimental, but like Mary, she has a backbone of steel. Luckily for me and my brothers, she didn’t own a cricket bat.’
The Black Widow based on a real national hero in Indonesia. In The Smuggler’s Curse, she trades a cargo of whisky with Captain Bowen for his crew’s guns, and in real life, Norman explained that she was a bandit queen in Sumatra who lead the armed resistance against the colonial Dutch rulers for over 50 years, well into the 20th century.
But who inspired his intrepid main character, Red, and his mentor, Captain Black Bowen?
As Norman explains, it’s himself. Or rather, ‘A younger, much braver by far and more energetic version of myself. Red is the sort of kid I would have liked to have been, and Captain Bowen is who I’d like to be now.’
‘I hope that as publishing spreads to include wider audiences, young readers will find books written by writers who are just like themselves. And who like history!’
Lata Periakarpan is currently interning with the marketing department at Fremantle Press, where she is working on projects that include photography, graphics, sound editing, videography, social media and of course, writing. She has a BA in Screen Arts and Creative Writing from Curtin University.