BOOK CLUB: The Sawdust House

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“The Sawdust House” by David Whish-Wilson is an interesting historical fiction that tells
the story of a little-known Australian boxer.

It’s 1856 in San Francisco, and James “Yankee” Sullivan is being held in jail by the
Committee of Vigilance, which aims to drive Australian criminals from the town. The trouble
for Sullivan is that just being Australian is enough to be considered a criminal for many of
these men. There’s little chance he can escape execution.

Thomas Crane is a young journalist who’d like to write something more meaningful than the
propaganda his newspaper wants. So while he’ll write the shallow (and not very honest)
pieces his paper wants, he records Sullivan’s story in more detail, with an eye to a later

Sullivan relates his colourful history— born in Ireland, transported to Australia as a convict, and
escaping to America. With few resources to fall back on, he used his body and became a
celebrated boxer at a time when this was illegal.

The novel is told in chapters that alternate the voices of James Sullivan and the reporter, Thomas Crane. Rather than dialogue punctuation, whenever each man speaks, a new chapter begins.

Each chapter is written in the first person, albeit from alternating perspectives. Minimal punctuation is used in Sullivan’s chapters, to represent the way the man himself would write (and speak). This generally works well, allowing the author to gradually draw us into the minds of each man.

However, this rather unusual style is going to discourage some readers. It’s initially a little
confusing, until you realise that it’s alternating between the men — they don’t become distinct
individuals until the novel is well underway. And although the lack of punctuation in Sullivan’s
chapters does ultimately help convey a sense of the man, there are moments when it makes
sentences a little hard to understand.

For many readers, this will be a strong novel. The relationship between the two men grows strong in a relatively short period of time, and readers are carried along with that. Their different personalities and concerns become distinct, and despite the confusion of the early few pages, it’s soon easy to tell who’s “speaking”.

There’s a wealth of interesting historical snippets here. And while some references may be too obscure for some readers, there’s a sense of deep research and knowledge underpinning the novel.

Many readers will find this an absorbing and interesting rendition of a historical figure who’s not well known.

ISBN:  9781760 99037
Copy courtesy of Fremantle Press (2022)

A selection of our Beauty and Lace Club Members are reading The Sawdust House by
David Whish-Wilson.
You can read their comments below, or add your own review.

5 thoughts on “BOOK CLUB: The Sawdust House

  1. Thank you for allowing me to read The Sawdust House.
    I found this book rather hard going. It was interesting to learn of this unknown part of Australian history but I found it confusing as to who was speaking and where we were in the story. Others will find it a strong novel.

  2. This one took a little bit to get use to but I ended up really enjoying it!

    It mainly alternates between the two main characters, the colourful ex-convict, James ‘Yankee’ Sullivan and newspaperman, Thomas Crane, who is interviewing Sullivan while he is held in jail by the Committee of Vigilance.

    I liked that each time one of them spoke it changed to a new chapter as I felt it made the whole book a little lighter and eased the lack of punctuation in Sullivan’s chapters.

    I would definitely recommend giving this book a go and persevering. It turned out to be a very interesting and enjoyable novel.

    Thanks Beauty and Lace and Fremantle Press for the chance to read and review.

  3. The Sawdust House was a very interesting read. Once you got used to the style of writing. There was little punctuation as it was written how they themselves would have spoken and written in the 1800’s.

    Ex-convict James Sullivan is being held in prison awaiting a death by hanging, telling his story to Thomas Crane, the newspaperman. The book swaps between both of these mans views.

    The research into James’s life story is evident throughout. The author did a great job. I had never heard of him. It delves into his fighting and his time as a convict in Australia.

    Thanks to Beauty and Lace and Fremantle Press for my copy to read and review.

  4. The Sawdust House is a fictionalised story based on the life of bare-knuckle boxer James Sullivan, better known as Yankee Sullivan, during the 1800’s.
    The story is written in a conversational manner as Thomas Crane, a reporter, talks with Sullivan about his life, with Crane asking questions and Sullivan replying. Sullivan is awaiting trial and possible execution by a vigilante group wanting to rid San Fransisco of criminals.
    Whish-Wislon’s writing is old worldly and poetic, befitting the time period
    I was fascinated by this story of courage and resilience however I would have liked it to be more fleshed out.

  5. The Sawdust House is a well thought out historical fiction telling the story of boxer James Sullivan who is being held in prison awaiting death by hanging. James is telling his story to Thomas a newspaperman.

    Sullivan tells of his life and how he grew up poor. Set in the 1800’s you get a real feel for how tough life would have been and the hardships he had to overcome.

    The style of writing is unique and reflects the language used by the men at the time. Written conversationally and with little punctuation you can hear the conversation in your head. However it does make it more challenging to get into the flow of the story.

    Thank you Beauty and Lace and Fremantle Press for allowing me to review this copy.

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