Riding on the sheep’s back and the profits of gold, the Australian colonies of the 1870s are again enlivened with prosperity. The Riverman’s Transgression opens in the South Australian port town of Goolwa, at the foot of the might Murray River. Slower only than the Mississippi, the waterway snakes its way north into Victoria and the innermost regions of western New South Wales. In an age before the railway became the backbone of Australian transport, the little paddle steamer with its side wheel was the country’s lifeblood.
Far from the freedom of the Murray and its towering red cliffs, its native fishermen in canoes and its far flung ports, lies the Victorian world of Australia’s cities. Corsets and high collars dominate as coffee palaces open to combat the consumption of alcohol. Single women are able to work in a few professions, but their life is a lonely one; old maids before their time, their future beyond the school house is bleak. While marriage is often a release from an uninspiring future, it can also mean continual pregnancy and an early death for those without access to medical care or good nutrition.
From this world comes Rebecca Birchmoor, recently trained by Adelaide’s City Model Schools and anxious to carve out a future inspiring young minds in a remote river town. While corsets, high collars and the religious right might be left behind in the city, the long arm of the law extends everywhere. Judgement and the death sentence are swiftly administered - and often meted out in error.