"In Tasmania" by Nicholas Shakespeare is an enjoyable blend of remembrances, anecdotes, and history. The stories are split into four sections, each one tackling a different aspect of the history of Tasmania, and each with wonderful supporting personal stories which take us along on the journey of Nicholas Shakespeare discovering the history of his family as well as the history of Tasmania and the significant overlap between the two. The book could easily fit into the category of History or Memoir, and the writing in places is almost like that of a novel.
The first section is titled "Father of Tasmania" and focuses largely on Anthony Fenn Kemp, an unusual character who travelled to France during the revolution and then went to South Carolina and met George Washington before making his way to New South Wales. There he got involved in most everything, and not in a good way. Shakespeare alternates between detailing the colorful adventures of Anthony Kemp and his own discovery that he was related to this important, but not particularly well-remembered or well-liked figure. It would be impossible to cover Kemp's life in a review, and not surprisingly this is the largest section of the book.
The second section is called "Black Lines", and it deals with the aboriginal population and the interactions between the Europeans and the natives. This is a very poignant section, detailing the history right down to the death of the last full-blooded male (William Lanne) and female (Lalla Rookh, a.k.a. Truganina) Tasmanian aboriginals. Shakespeare discusses the scenes of both of their passings so well, that it cannot fail to touch the reader's heart. The horrors of the fight over Lanne's body, and the sorry of Truganini's last years after Lanne had passed leave an impact that one will remember long after completing the book.
The third section is called "Elysium", and in this section the author looks at how Tasmania went from being perceived as "hell on Earth" to a much more positive reputation. There is no single thread in this section, but his family history focuses on a favorite uncle of his father's whom Nicholas Shakespeare learns came to Tasmania and the relatives that he meets while learning about him. This is a more personal section than the previous ones, and more general in its approach to covering the history of Tasmania. Though called "Elysium", there is still a bit of "hell" included, especially in the detailed section on an 80-year old murder which took place near where his relatives lived.
The last section is titled "Oyster Bay", and this section itself is divided into four short chapters, each detailing one particular aspect of Tasmania. The first is "Daughter of Tasmania" and is about the actress Merle Oberon who claimed to be from Tasmania, but her history is not quite so clear. The second chapter is titled "Tigers and Devils" and discusses the history of the unique animals of Tasmania, and in particular the mysterious Tasmanian Tiger who some say still survives. The third chapter discusses Oyster Bay and the unusual events which have occurred at that location. The last chapter which closes the section and the book is titled "Doubles" in which Shakespeare discovers that the subject of his previous book also has numerous relatives in Tasmania. He goes on to bring together the two sets of relatives that he has there as well.
Those who have been there know that Tasmania is an unusual place, with its own feel and pace. "In Tasmania" does a beautiful job of capturing the feel of the place, from the scary and horrible past, to the beautiful natural environment, to the quaint English country town feel in some areas. For those who have been there, you will enjoy your own remembrances as you read this book, and for those who haven't, this book is the next best thing to visiting.