River Boy
Adventures on a Murray River paddle-boat

National Museum of Australia    PS Enterprise     Port of Echuca    Echuca Wharf

Come on River Boy...

Full steam ahead!



When Nat Shannon ran away from his uncle's farm to join the river boats one fine spring day in the early 1880s, his escape was easier than the boy every imagined...

With these opening words of River Boy, Anthony Hill draws us straight into every boy's adventure of steam boats, bargemen, floods and blazing furnaces in the high days of the Murray River paddle-wheelers..


It was a time when rivers were the highways to the interior, and steam boats carried their cargoes of people and produce to the inland settlements. Every river boy wanted to join them.

For this was a time when the rivermen were 'kings". A time when they worked hard. Played hard. And lived hard.

No wonder Nat Shannon wanted to be one of them!

 Paddle steamer and barge on the Murray 2004


River barge foundered near Echuca wharf, 2004

But the rivers were also full of peril ...

Hidden shoals and sandbanks. Dead trees lying just below the surface, waiting to snag and tear the bottom from a barge.

Droughts, when the boats were stranded far upriver. Floods sweeping  torrents downstream.

And Nat Shannon has one awful secret. This River Boy can't swim! But when his barge is holed, there is only one way to save it, and Nat has to face his worst fears...

Fearfully, warily, Nat let himself into the flood. He felt the swift, dark currents grabbing him, trying to pull him down. He seemed to hear the words of the shanty, like sirens singling all around him: To the river's deep bosom each seaman will go...

Illustrated with evocative black and white drawings by Award-winning Australian children's artist Donna Rawlins, River Boy is a first chapter book of 68 pages, suitable for young independent readers.

River Boy Q&A

Why did you write River Boy?

I was asked to write River Boy by the National Museum of Australia as part of the 'Making Tracks' series. A group of authors and illustrators have written a number of small chapter books for young independent readers up to about 10 years. Each book takes an object in the National Museum collection as a starting point for a story. I chose the paddle steamer Enterprise. And I was very lucky to have Donna Rawlins as an illustrator.

Why the Enterprise?

The Enterprise is a famous boat. It's one of the oldest working paddleboats in the world. She was built at the river port of Echuca in 1878. After a long life on the Murray River she's now part of the National Museum collection and still steams from time to time around Canberra's Lake Burley Griffin. I felt she needed a book of her own. There's an interactive section about the Enterprise at the National Museum's website.

How did you research River Boy?

I went for a ride on the Enterprise, smelling the oil and smoke, watching the steam and the pistons driving the paddle wheels. I also went to Echuca for several days where a number of steam boats still ply the river, mainly for tourists.

The river port is not as busy as it was in the old days, but you can still get a sense of what it was like, watching the river flowing by the wharf on its high wooden stilts.

What do you think River Boy means?

River Boy is first and foremost an adventure story ... a tale to interest visitors to the Museum and say something of what it was like to live and work on the paddle boats in their golden age. It's a story about Nat Shannon's first voyage as a river boy.

But it's also a story of his inner journey ... Nat's growing up. We all have to make that journey from a child to an adult. Interestingly, this is also the theme of my book Captain Cook's Apprentice ... another story of a lad who embarked as a cabin boy, and returned home a man. In a strange way River Boy turned out to be a practice piece for the much longer novel about the Endeavour voyage.

Paddle boats at Echuca, 2004