Written by Carol Birch
Review by Sara Wilson

A ‘scapegallows’ is one who deserves and has narrowly escaped hanging. One such is Margaret Catchpole, born in Suffolk, who lived a double life as a servant to a wealthy local family by day and lover of the free trader Will Laud by night. She was a skilled horsewoman and midwife, by nature both courageous and charming.

Her love for Will eventually led her to steal a horse for which she was sentenced to hang, but she twice evaded the gallows and ended up on a transportation ship bound for Australia. There she gained her freedom and lived an independent life, refusing offers of marriage, but residing in her own cottage with only a young boy for company.

Scapegallows is based on the real life of Margaret Catchpole, and it’s a story on a grand scale. Margaret is neither a bad woman nor a blameless one, but in spite of fear, deprivation and loneliness she remains true to her love for Will and true to herself. This type of novel needs a feisty character to maintain the reader’s interest throughout, and Margaret has feistiness in bucket loads. It’s her courageousness that both redeems and dooms her.

It is a literary novel that wears its research and depth lightly, making it extremely readable. From rural Suffolk, through the bustle of London and the squalor of Newgate, to the sweeping panorama of New South Wales, Carol Birch takes us on an epic journey that never fails to delight.