Book Reviews

This novel will appeal to history enthusiasts with its vivid recollections of Britain’s past. Its detailed account of the operation of cotton mills and the planning and developing of settlements was enthralling, particularly the evolution of Port Macquarie from a place of little means to a prosperous town. Moreover, Tom’s experience thoroughly highlighted the importance of convict rehabilitation and reintegration, which varies tremendously from today’s standards.

Dell Brand’s “Wylde Oates” is an enthralling tale of resilience, family, and love that will pull at your heartstrings. The various perspectives added further substance. I truly resonated with each character—Tom, Bella, and Jane throughout their joys and sorrows. Between the rich history and all-encompassing love triangle, the novel had an epic vibe that I could see translating well to the big screen. Five stars!

Spending twelve hours a day in the cotton mill is tedious work. Still, for teenage Tom Wylde, it’s a small price to pay to provide for his four siblings and ailing father back in Carluke. But bright-eyed Tom’s biggest motivator is securing a future with his beautiful lass in New Lanark, Miss Isabella (Bella) Oates. The two are hopelessly in love. Despite his impeccable moral compass and exciting plans for the future, one poor decision finds Tom accused of murder and facing fourteen years in prison.

Undeterred by the devastating news, Bella’s heart remains relentlessly loyal to Tom. She makes the heart-wrenching decision to leave her family in Scotland and embark on a new life in New South Wales, where Tom will be serving his sentence. Bella is aware of the challenges ahead but is unprepared for the adversity she will face. Will Tom still want her? Will she ever get married? These questions haunt her, but they do not break her spirit. Her new life is a constant battle, filled with loneliness and hardship. Still, with a renewed determination, Bella never gives up hope.

After years of no correspondence, Tom deduces Bella has moved on, and he marries Jane, a woman he works with at the mill. While he still thinks of his former love, he is now a married man and happy with Jane.

Will fate bring Tom and Bella back together?

Dell Brand’s “Wylde Oates” is a captivating historical coming-of-age novel set in Britain during the Industrial Revolution from 1810 to 1837. The narrative is written from the third person perspective, following Tom Wylde as he grapples with financial instability, life as a convict, and an impossible love triangle. While the perspective primarily follows the young man, various chapters delve into the hearts of the women who have his heart—Bella and Jane as they deal with their own misfortunes, such as illness, grief, self-doubt, and postpartum trauma. This immersive saga had many moving parts. Brand has done an excellent job reeling the reader in with the intricate dynamics of the love triangle, complex character development, and detailed backstories to elevate the reading experience.

5*- An enthralling historical fiction about love and resilience.

Reviewed by Stephanie Elizabeth Long for Reader Views (05/2024)

Wylde Oates covers the period between 1810 and the late 1830s, beginning in Scotland, an industrial hub at the time, and ending in the New World, in Sydney, Australia. It is a saga of two young people’s resilience, taking chances where needed, and building a strong future for themselves.

There are two main characters in Wylde Oates: Tom – a reliable worker with some education and a knack to learn as he goes; and Bella – Tom’s teenage sweetheart and betrothed, whose determination to follow him to the colonies proves challenging. The narrative shifts between the two (mainly) in different chapters.

We also have Ed – a friend Tom made whilst incarcerated in England, who joins him on the convict ship; Jane – Ed’s sister and Tom’s wife, and mother of his children, who fears for her family when she hears about Bella’s arrival. And there are several other secondary characters – employers, friends, and government officials – whose path cross Tom’s or Bella’s.

Tom is very likeable, a friendly guy whose temper occasionally lets him down. His work ethic is remarkable, as he carves his path to climb the employment ladder. But he has a heart of gold, and he’s not ruthless – unless forced (read the book!). At times, he’s also a little too easy-going, relying on his good fortune to dig him out of any holes he manoeuvres himself into. Some would consider him boring, content with a quiet life, but I think his character fits well into the colony’s environment he finds himself in. He doesn’t want to get punished further, and wants to provide Jane and his children with a safe home.

Bella is one determined young woman. Keen to follow Tom to the ends of the world, she has to face a series of heart-wrenching situations. Putting a brave face to her predicament, she forges a new life for herself in Australia, where she keeps her deepest secrets from anyone but her friend, Sarah. Whilst she suffers much bad luck, we rarely see a glimpse of her emotions which, at times, would have been overpowering. I thought this was a sadly missed opportunity to show her human side.

Through Tom and Bella, we experience the harsh realities of life in the New World. As a penal colony, Australia was full of convicts keen to escape, alongside regular immigrants from Great Britain, looking for new opportunities. We also see the grim reality of life in early 19th-century Scotland, where rich landowners have a say, and poor workers must toil long days. Their learning curve is steep, and we worry with them along the way.

Some of the secondary characters Ms Brand has created seem a little too good to be true, most notably Tom’s and Bella’s recurring ‘kind’ employers. In several places, I thought it would have been too coincidental, and to me, it lacked a sense of gritty realism that would have been on display in that era. Yes, they were looking for hard workers; but would they really have gone to such great lengths to help?

The research undertaken by the author is impeccable, and she provides a list of references at the end of the book for further reading, which I found excellent. The authentic setting, both in Scotland and in Australia, is proof of Ms Brand’s extensive research, and comes across as completely realistic. Through the narrative, we witness the changes that happen in Australia between 1814 and 1837 – new cities spring up, manufacturing and sheep-rearing becomes established, and buildings turn from practical huts to real homes for the intrepid families who dared build new lives so far away from home. An exciting if challenging time.

However, it is through Ms Brand’s unique narrative style – and the inclusion of her local, useful research – that the novel, at times, reads like a history book, rather than a fictional tale. The balance veers more towards inclusion of historic facts and developments, rather than showing the emotional side of the characters. Here, I thought, the novel lacked a personal touch, especially given all the things Tom and Bella are going through.

Having said that, the detailed narrative will perfectly suit readers who prefer a novel with a literary slant, rather than a commercial tone, and the historical details will delight any fan of real history in novels. I, for one, have discovered a lot!

Despite the distinct sense of realism, Ms Brand’s prose never slides into gratuitous violence or explicit description, given the nature of several events. There is occasional violence in the novel, all within its correct context, and several mild love scenes. But all these are well-founded within the utterly gripping plot.

The timescale reaches from 1810-1837, during which time many changes happened across the world. In newly-founded Australia, the various governors ruled a vast land, and I’m grateful that the author doesn’t shy away from mentioning the fate of the aboriginal people, who were displaced by the newcomers. But this aspect played a very minor part in what is essentially an evocative 19th-century love story between two strong, kind, and hard-working characters.

Wylde Oates is a wonderfully-plotted novel of hardship, fate, new beginnings and enduring love. Tom and Bella’s strong sense of determination, keen to make the most of their changing circumstances, weaves a powerfully strong thread through the whole book, and their refusal to be cowed by cruel twists of fate is a shining example of how one can achieve the (almost) impossible, even against all odds.

Recommended especially for fans of literary family sagas and riveting adventures in the New World in the 19th century. These readers will enjoy Wylde Oates.

Review by Cathie Dunn, The Coffee Pot Book Club



Other Adult Books by Dell that you may like…

  • As the lumbering jet swoops low over the grey, legoland housing rows that surround Heathrow Airport, the story of the author’s year of living in England begins. Recipients of a teaching exchange, Australians Dell and John are bound for schools in the West Midlands, and find that things are quite different in Brummyland.
  • The story of two young women determined to live outside the confines of the Victorian Age and who have a lasting impact on the fledgling town of Melbourne.
  • An epic story of life and death amid the turbulent years of the Victorian gold rush, narrated by the three main characters, Adam, Joey and Tom.
  • Penny Taylor, from London’s East End, finds herself part of the struggling Hapless family, living in a caravan park in the Illawarra on the south coast of New South Wales. She is kept busy with three young children, two of whom belong to Dudley Hapless, her present partner and a professional basketball player with the Hawks.